Kaiser Permanente reinstates mask mandate amid COVID-19 spike. What to know about the disease now

Kaiser said in a statement that in the past three weeks there has been an overall increase in the number of patients testing positive for COVID-19.|

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A spike in local COVID-19 infections has led Kaiser Permanente, the county’s largest primary care provider, to begin requiring staff, patients and visitors to wear masks at its Santa Rosa facilities.

Kaiser said in a statement late Tuesday that in the past three weeks there has been an overall increase in the number of patients testing positive for COVID-19.

“To ensure that we are helping protect the health and safety of our patients, our workforce and our community, we have reintroduced a mask mandate for physicians, staff, patients, members, and visitors in the hospital and medical offices in the Santa Rosa Service Area,” the company statement said.

Kaiser also encouraged “individuals to get the anticipated COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available in the fall so we can protect against severe illness.” Local health officials say that vaccine is designed to provide better protection against the strain of COVID-19 currently circulating in the community.

At Sutter Health facilities, masks are “strongly recommended” for patients and visitors, particularly if they are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or another respiratory illness.

Dr. Gary Green, an infectious disease specialist with Sutter Health in Sonoma County, said he’s been seeing a steady increase in COVID-19 infections among outpatient visits.

Green said 23% of COVID-19 swab tests are now coming back positive, compared to 15% to 18% in late July. In a previous interview, Green said that prior to the summer, test positivity had been as low as 6%.

Green said the current 23% test positivity is comparable to last year’s rates. “We haven’t seen that since the spike in July of last year,” he said.

The good news, he said, is that 99% of the cases he is seeing are mild, and there hasn’t been a worrisome increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations or patients requiring intensive care.

The spike in cases is in line with an increase in COVID-19 infections across the state and the rest of the country.

Dr. Karen Smith, the county’s interim health officer, applauded Kaiser’s move to require masking in its Santa Rosa health care facilities. She said that masking is the best way to protect your health, second only to being vaccinated.

There is no countywide mandate for masking.

“If you are someone who is likely to become more ill if you get COVID, if you’re somebody who has not been vaccinated or if you're immunocompromised, you need to start being aware that it's beginning to circulate in the community,” Smith said.

Smith said tracking COVID-19 infections has become increasingly difficult because far fewer people are being tested in clinical settings, where the results are logged automatically. Many people now do home tests, and many of those results are not reported to health officials.

Local public health staff now rely more on wastewater surveillance, she said. The concentration of COVID-19 virus in wastewater in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park is on the rise, according to county wastewater data.

Smith said she and other health care professionals expected to see an increase COVID-19 infections, along with other respiratory illnesses, as we head into the fall.

“The piece that we’re most concerned about is hospitalizations,” Smith said. “Looking at the most recent state data for hospitalizations … (rates), too, are now ticking up.”

Ashley Boarman, a Sutter Health spokeswoman, said the organization also strongly recommends that staff wear masks. Boarman said there’s also a Sutter policy that allows patients to request that their “care team” wear a mask while caring for them.

In some hospital settings, masking is required. Sutter requires masking in certain high-risk patient care areas, including transplant units and infusion centers.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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