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Latinos now account for 75% of Sonoma County’s coronavirus cases, a growing disparity

Latino residents now account for three out of four known COVID-19 cases in Sonoma County, a rate nearly three times higher than the share of the local Latino population, and a disparity that continues to grow amid the coronavirus pandemic, pushing local transmission rates to among the highest in the state.

In California, only two other counties, Kings and Imperial, have higher rates of transmission among their residents.

Sonoma County residents who identify as Latino or Hispanic - accounting for more than 27% of the population - are now statistically about nine times more likely than their white neighbors to become infected by the coronavirus, county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase told the Board of Supervisors on Thursday.

She cautioned that statistics presented during her weekly board briefing reflected her department’s focused efforts to test in the Latino community and track down contacts of those found to be infected.

“We know where the transmission is happening, and we’re reaching out,” Mase said in an interview. “Even though transmission is happening, and it’s not a good thing, we know exactly who to test and where the secondary cases are.”

The revelation marked the latest troubling report on the disproportionate impact of the pandemic in the county’s large Latino community. Among all local youth under 18 who tested positive for the virus, 54 of 57 individuals, or 95%, were Latino, the county revealed last month.

The rising infection rate among Latino residents, 446 of whom had tested positive as of Thursday morning, comes as Sonoma County and other areas of California continue to restart sectors of the economy and civic life.

In the past month, the county has reopened parks, churches, shopping malls, restaurants and tasting rooms, barbershops and hair salons, all with heightened safety and sanitary measures in place.

Hotels, gyms, bars, cardrooms, campgrounds and several other enterprises are expected to get clearance to operate in Sonoma County beginning late next week.

Second peak possible

But even as life appears to be normalizing in some respects, a variety of models consulted by state policymakers predict a second peak in COVID-19 cases arriving as early as August, with a rise in hospitalizations and deaths that could be detectable by late June or early July.

“The size and timing of the peak depends entirely on the mitigation strategies in place,” Mase told supervisors, “and, of course, individual behavior - who adheres to individual strategies, the effectiveness of facial coverings and general hygiene and social or physical distancing.”

Where initial modeling conducted in March and April was based on assumptions - in the absence of experience with a brand new virus - the new modeling has three or four months of data behind it and should be increasingly accurate as time goes on, she said.

“It remains to be seen, as we move away from shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders, how mitigation measures that we put into place are effective in continuing to reduce cases and flatten the curve,” Mase said. “We don’t know.”

The county so far has avoided a major surge in cases, keeping hospitalizations within a level that could be managed without overtaxing available hospital beds and resources.

Care homes at high risk

Out of 680 total cases as of Thursday, fewer than 50 people required hospitalization, and county officials have generally credited early imposition of a local shelter-in-place order with keeping the virus contained.

But demographic information about the local caseload, reported by The Press Democrat a month ago, highlighted a significant disparity between Latino members of the community and the majority white population.

At that time, 59% percent of all known positive cases were among Latinos, making them 4½ times more likely than white residents to contract the coronavirus.

Now, four weeks later, that statistical likelihood has doubled, with 75% of all positive cases coming from Latino residents.

White residents, who represent about 65% of the population, account for about 20% of the infections.

Public officials say the disparity is related in large part to the relatively high number of Latinos who live in close quarters and work in jobs that involve face-to-face exposure, with little opportunity for physical distancing.

Mase said some of those infected live, work and commute together, resulting in outbreaks that overlap households and work sites.

Workplace transmission has risen from 5% to about 10% over the week, she said.

Also recently - so recently that Mase said she is still trying to size up the problem - county health workers have discovered new cases among workers and vulnerable seniors in undisclosed long-term care facilities - the types of places where tens of thousands of people across the nation have fallen ill, accounting for more than a third of U.S. coronavirus-?related deaths.

Mase did not have a number or other details to release, but said in an interview she was “very, very” concerned.

“We’ve been able to keep the cases out of the RCFEs (residential care facilities) thus far, but we’re seeing more cases in the RCFEs and a few in the skilled nursing facilities, and that’s definitely worrisome,” she said. “It’s kind of like that cat out of the bag thing - only so long can you can contain something.”

Infection clusters found

In the Latino community, contact tracing has been employed to pinpoint people for testing and isolation. It has allowed health workers to map out 23 multi-household clusters of 380 people, each cluster with an average of nine cases but as many as 32, skewing the statistical metric used to measure the rate of transmission and boosting Sonoma County’s ranking to the among the highest levels in California.

Sonoma County ranked just below Kings County and Imperial County, where a surge in cases has forced hospitals to transport patients to other counties for care.

Marin County sat right behind Sonoma County on the statewide ranking, which showed 26 of California’s 58 counties, including five others in the Bay Area, with transmission rates above one - meaning each individual with coronavirus infects more than one other person, driving the caseload up. Counties with a transmission rate below one have a decreasing caseload.

Mase said the county’s transmission rate would likely fluctuate, though it may have dropped below third place since the last ranking, which was based on data for the week of May 14.

But she said it remained important to monitor as reopening continued.

Rules could re-tighten

Asked by Supervisor Lynda Hopkins what local residents can expect to see if cases began ramping up toward a surge, Mase said the county could respond in a much more targeted way now that it had greater experience with the virus.

It could focus remediation or any necessary pullback on specific businesses, commercial sectors, geographic areas or public activity where transmission seemed to be occurring rather than taking a “blanket” approach, she said.

“Now that we have a much better idea about COVID transmission, where it occurs we can use a much more targeted, ?evidence-based strategy to our shutdowns, as well,” she said.

If there’s a sudden increase in community spread, where it’s unclear how transmission is happening and targeted action isn’t possible, “that’s when we would consider more overarching strategies, if need be,” Mase added. “I hope we don’t get there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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