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More COVID-19 deaths among Sonoma County seniors mark deadliest week in pandemic

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Sonoma County’s coronavirus death toll has skyrocketed to 36 as at least a dozen people living at skilled nursing or residential care facilities have succumbed to COVID-19 since last Thursday, county health officials said.

The 12 confirmed fatalities, from July 23 through Thursday, represent a third of all COVID-19-related deaths in Sonoma County, a toll that has more than doubled since July 15.

All of the dozen people who died in the past week were 65 or older. Six were living at a skilled nursing facility, while the other six lived at a residential care facility for the elderly, according to county records.

The county previously had reported seven deaths early in the week and an eighth late Thursday. The four most recent deaths were reported after Dr. Sundari Mase’s regular press call Friday, when the county health officer again described the spate of deaths as “heartbreaking.”

Mase voiced hope that extra help the county requested from the state would improve coronavirus-related care available to vulnerable elderly people.

“From a county perspective, it’s been a priority since Day 1,” Mase said.

Likewise, the California Department of Public Health said Friday in a statement that its top priority has been and would be "ensuring the health and safety of residents and staff at skilled nursing facilities.“ State infection control teams, which have visited Sonoma County before, are expected next week to become a daily fixture of the battle against the virus in local skilled nursing facilities after the county asked for extra help.

“As part of this, strike teams comprised of health care-associated infection prevention specialists continue to assist in Sonoma County, working in partnership with the local health department and others to help mitigate any further infections and assess for potential exposures,” a CDPH spokesperson said in the statement.

The recent surge is “pretty bad,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, and it could add to painful anxiety for older Sonoma County residents. Zane, who previously served as the CEO of Sonoma County's Council on Aging, emphasized the importance of safe social distancing and taking proper precautions for seniors.

“So many seniors are afraid that they’re going to get the disease, that they’re high risk, that it’s going to kill them, and that they’ll die alone,” Zane said. “You can socialize safety. We don’t want you to be isolated because that’s not good for your health.”

Mase has been steadfast in her contention that because skilled nursing facilities are licensed by the state, the county’s role and responsibility in these cases is limited.

Asked whether she could ramp up the county’s health order regarding skilled nursing facilities and request the state’s help with enforcement, she said she’d have to check with the County Counsel’s Office to gauge the legal limits facing her team.

Skilled nursing homes and residential care facilities for the elderly “are really trying to do the best they can with mitigating and managing COVID when it comes into their facilities, but it’s an inherent weakness of the system,” Mase said Friday. “And so that’s why I think it’s so important to have the state come in and be involved with them, because it’s not just a county problem — it’s actually a statewide problem that everyone is facing.”

Mase has said that, despite strict limits on outside visitors, the virus has found its way into skilled nursing facilities and long-term care homes via employees, including those who may not have any detectable symptoms and don’t know they are infected.

The dramatic rise in deaths this week includes multiple deaths Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, a county spokesman confirmed Friday. It comes as the county continues to struggle to find a facility willing and able to serve as an alternate care site — a place where vulnerable elderly people could be properly isolated and quarantined outside the confines of nursing homes that lack sufficient space.

Mase has said that the county’s effort dates back months. On Friday, she added that conversations with Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital as well as medical facilities in Healdsburg, Sebastopol and the Sonoma Valley have not panned out, for a variety of reasons.

“We have really searched around and talked to all the hospitals, many (skilled nursing facilities) that have closed or ones that haven’t opened yet,” Mase said, adding that she hoped to talk to another group Friday that could accept 12 people with COVID-19.

The county initially described incorrectly four of seven COVID-19 deaths reported earlier this week. They were living at a residential care facility for the elderly, the county acknowledged Friday. The other three were nursing home residents.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

The confirmation of multiple deaths at a long-term care facility marks another new and concerning front in the battle against the deadly disease.

The state Department of Social Services’ online list of residential care facilities with space for seven or more people listed only one such facility reporting any COVID-19 deaths or cases in Sonoma County: Mirabel Lodge, a Forestville facility that has capacity for 34 people, according to state data.

The state’s list does not specify how many COVID-19 deaths are associated with Mirabel Lodge ‒ the total is at least one but fewer than 11. It indicates that Mirabel Lodge has experienced 21 positive cases among residents and 12 among staff.

Mirabel Lodge’s administration did not respond Friday to a message seeking comment left with a person who answered the phone and a request for an interview sent to an email address on the facility’s website.

A facility administrator, Alain Serkissian, replied to a separate inquiry from The Press Democrat in a voicemail message, effectively declining to comment: “There is nothing I can tell you about any of the residents, either their health or their lack of.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Social Services, which oversees residential care homes, did not respond to a request for comment.

Thirty of the 36 coronavirus deaths in Sonoma County were people living in nursing homes or residential care facilities for the elderly. Twenty-four were nursing home residents.

Countywide, at least 235 Sonoma County nursing home residents and workers here have tested positive as of mid-week, including at least 137 residents overall. More than half of those cases have been confirmed since mid-July.

The bulk of those cases, and all the known nursing home deaths, are concentrated in three facilities, according to state records, which do not specify the number of deaths: Broadway Villa Post Acute in Sonoma and Petaluma Post Acute and EmPres Post Acute Health and Rehabilitation in Petaluma.

County officials, including Mase, have declined to identify the facilities where deaths and outbreaks have occurred.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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