Sonoma County braces for post-holiday coronavirus spike, boosts virus testing

Sonoma County soon will add a third state-sponsored testing site in Petaluma and a third drive-thru lane at test location at Sonoma County Fairgrounds.|

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Anticipating a surge in demand following a busy Thanksgiving holiday week, Sonoma County is expanding coronavirus testing, adding a third state-sponsored site in Petaluma as well as a third drive-thru lane at the test location at Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

With the expansion, the county expects to soon nearly double its daily testing capacity at the three public test locations to 1,155 virus tests.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Monday there was “a huge uptick in testing” even before the holiday, as families and friends planned to get together.

“OptumServe has been completely full, the Windsor location as well as the Santa Rosa fairgrounds location,” she said of the free testing sites provided by the state. “Now we could expect probably to see even more people who want to get a test, because they may have traveled.”

It’s the expected results of those COVID-19 tests that has Mase worried, much like her public health colleagues in California and at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last week, she asked county residents to stay home for the holiday to avoid potential exposure to the highly contagious virus.

Mase on Monday urged recent travelers experiencing possible COVID-19 symptoms to be tested immediately. Symptoms include fever, chills, runny nose, coughing, shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, loss of taste or smell, nausea and diarrhea. Even travelers who are not symptomatic should be tested 3 to 7 days upon their return, she said, particularly if they are coming back from an area with higher transmission rates than here in the Bay Area.

It’s hard to gauge how many people flew into or out of Sonoma County Airport in the past week, or how many took to the highways to visit loved ones for Thanksgiving.

Nationwide, however, the evidence is clear. The Transportation Security Administration revealed that on Sunday nearly 1.2 million people passed through security checkpoints at U.S. airports, the highest daily air traffic since the start of the pandemic in March. The previous high was almost 1.1 million the day before Thanksgiving. And last week 6 million Americans took flights, despite out-of-control virus spread in most states.

One problem with this latest potential spike in local virus infections is that it will take some time for any effects from Thanksgiving social gatherings to show up in the county’s COVID-19 data.

“At the very earliest, two weeks. And actually in our experience, it’s been more like four weeks before we really see the impact of any event,” Mase said.

That’s because it takes a few days for anyone who was infected at a holiday gathering to start feeling sick, and several more days to schedule a test and get the results. Then there will be an additional lag for those people diagnosed with the virus to show up in official numbers. Any hospitalizations and deaths would probably take another two weeks to play out.

In the meantime, Mase is advising Sonoma County residents to take additional precautions. They include heightened self-monitoring for those who traveled or hosted visitors over Thanksgiving, and isolating as much as possible for 14 days.

Sonoma County officials are intensifying their efforts to contain the virus during the end-of-year holiday season. Mase said the county’s contact tracers will work with peers in other counties or states to pin down sources of transmission, and that her team is broadening its conversations with those who have tested positive or been exposed to people who have.

“We will do the case interview, which will include specific questions about gatherings during Thanksgiving, number of people, indoors-outdoors, people that are visiting from out of state,” Mase said. “So more specific questions asked. … That’s all stuff that’s new, that we’re telling people about this particular holiday travel.”

Meanwhile, Sonoma County spokesman Paul Gullixson didn’t know Monday when or where the new Petaluma testing site would open. But he said the third lane at the county fairgrounds in Santa Rosa is expected to go live Dec. 7, and will increase testing capacity there by 50%. The county hopes that when all three local OptumServe testing centers are open, total capacity will be 1,155 tests a day, up from 660 daily tests as of Monday.

One thing Mase is not considering, at least at this time, is tightening restrictions similar to what other counties have done. Los Angeles County, for example, has banned all gatherings among people from different households, closed playgrounds and further limited capacity at grocery stores, malls, libraries, hair and nail salons and other establishments.

“We actually are doing quite a bit better than the state, for whatever reason,” Mase said. “Probably because we remained in the purple (tier, the most restrictive in terms of California’s guidance to counties), and we didn’t actually open some of the sectors that some of the other Bay Area counties and counties throughout the state went on to open. So I think we’re hanging in there. … I think LA was doing what they were doing because they were just seeing huge increases.”

Due to the autumn virus surge, hospitalizations statewide have increased almost 90% over the past 14 days and nearly 7,800 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in California as of Monday. Many more state residents sick with COVID-19 are expected to need hospital care in the next two to three weeks, threatening to overwhelm medical centers in certain areas.

“The red flags are flying in terms of the trajectory in our projections of growth," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. “If these (virus) trends continue, we’re going to have to take much more dramatic, arguably drastic, action.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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