Petaluma site adds to COVID-19 testing capacity in Sonoma County
Sonoma County is expanding public testing for COVID-19 as a dangerous new period in the coronavirus pandemic sets in, with rising infection rates and hospitalizations in the county and across the state and nation.
The move, including the addition of another free diagnostic testing site this week in Petaluma, comes as Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer, announced a new stay-home order Thursday that will lead to sweeping limitations on businesses and public movement for non-essential purposes.
With a newly opened testing site at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, the county’s capacity will grow to more than 1,155 swabs daily at its free, fixed-site facilities — about twice the max volume of this summer.
“The third testing site in south Sonoma County provides additional critical access for residents and allows health officials to continue to identify and isolate cases, as we work together to stop the spread and eliminate the virus,” Mase said in a statement, hours before she announced a revised stay-at-home order.
OptumServe, the contractor overseeing Sonoma County’s public testing sites — and most of those across California — can now process about 330 tests per day in Petaluma, 330 in Windsor and, following the addition of a third lane at its Sonoma County Fairgrounds site, close to 500 in Santa Rosa.
Those numbers do not come close to representing the full scope of testing in the area, though, because they include only the free sites open to the public through daily appointments. Mase, in a presentation Tuesday to the Board of Supervisors, noted that an average of 2,570 tests are conducted each day countywide — and that was before the latest addition in Petaluma. (A test site at the Petaluma campus of Santa Rosa Junior College has been closed.)
Mase said Sonoma County’s testing rate — 517 tests a day per 100,000 residents — is double the state average.
Some of the most successful free operations have been the county’s pop-up testing sites, which occur once a week at multiple locations. Thursday morning, the line outside the Roseland Community Library in Santa Rosa stretched down the block.
Of the nearly 300,000 tests that had been conducted in Sonoma County at the time of Mase’s Tuesday presentation to the board, only about 19% had gone through OptumServe. The area’s major hospitals — Kaiser, Sutter and St. Joseph/Memorial — had conducted 32.1% of all tests, and the county’s public health division had done 19.2%. More than 21% of the tests were done by private labs.
One example of the private side of testing is the collection sites owned by Quest Cap, which recently opened fee-based testing locations at Santa Rosa Plaza and Petaluma Village Premium Outlets. A spokeswoman for Quest Cap said those sites can process 200-300 tests per day. They offer rapid antibody tests for $59, rapid antigen swabs that bring instant results for $99 and more accurate PCR swabs that run $179 and take two days to analyze.
Mase, in her presentation on Tuesday, also broke down turnaround times among local test collectors. Between Nov. 16 to 30, OptumServe averaged 2.8 days from swab to result. Kaiser was at 2.4 days, St. Joseph Health/Memorial Hospital at 0.5 and the Sonoma County Public Health Lab at 2.2.
Health authorities have raised alarms of late about rising infection rates and their ties to recent holiday gatherings. Mase said Thursday that at least 31 Sonoma County coronavirus cases had been linked directly to Thanksgiving celebrations, a number she said was almost certainly a significant undercount.
Mase clarified that the new OptumServe site at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma was planned more than a month ago because the county remained in the most restrictive tier for reopening.
“That was allocated to us because we remained in the purple tier,” she said. “Before even these latest worries about the surge, we’d already been allocated those extra two lanes in Petaluma and an extra lane in Santa Rosa.”
The new location, inside toadstool-like Herzog Hall, is a welcome development to anyone living in the southern portion of the county.
“Glad to have a free facility available to the public in the south county again,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “We sacrificed to address the census tracts.”
Traffic was minimal at the new Petaluma site Thursday. It was the first day of operation there, and it seemed word had not gotten out that the county had added another testing site. But those who were able to take advantage left pleased with the experience.
“I’m very happy to have something here,” said Petaluma resident Eric Michado, who works with a construction crew and decided to get tested when one of his wife’s co-workers tested positive. “I walked straight in and got tested.”
Michado had to drive to Windsor the last time he was tested.
Don Patterson, who also lives in Petaluma, had a similarly positive visit. He and his girlfriend both decided to get tested recently, just to be on the safe side.
“It took five minutes,” Patterson said. “I can’t believe they don’t have a line.”
Sonoma County is averaging 168 new confirmed cases per day, one of several high-water marks so far this month, which has already seen two days that topped all others during the pandemic for reported infections.
Diagnostic tests are just a snapshot, and they do not defend against infection, but they can help show Mase and her team the level of local risk, and how they might combat it. And they can help people like Patterson make daily decisions that will affect their health, and perhaps their lives.
“We should be testing like crazy,” he said. “This thing is a lot more serious than it was when I got tested earlier.”
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.