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Sonoma County calls for police, all first responders to get COVID-19 shots

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Sonoma County public health officials on Wednesday said they will require all area first responders — law enforcement, fire and emergency medical employees — to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Sept. 1 or submit to weekly virus testing, masking and other safety measures.

Underscoring the critical nature of the virus resurgence, the county health officer also urged all local employers to follow the county’s lead and make full vaccination or weekly COVID-19 testing a requirement for employment.

The public health order, announced during a press conference, is the second pandemic-related mandate this week, as the county grapples with widespread virus transmission and related hospitalizations caused by the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19. Notably, the variant is largely infecting and sending area residents who are not vaccinated to hospitals.

On Monday, the county reinstated mandatory indoor masking in public settings, an earlier move to try to disrupt the rapid community spread of the powerful delta virus strain. Officials said the variant is now responsible for 93% of all new coronavirus cases nationwide.

Also, county staff will be presenting a plan to the Board of Supervisors for consideration on Aug. 17 that would extend the same vaccination or testing requirements to all 4,470 county workers.

“This is a critical and necessary step towards getting a higher percentage of our population vaccinated and stopping the threat that's occurring within our community due to the delta variant,” Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Wednesday.

Among county residents 12 or older, 70.5% are fully vaccinated, far less than in Marin County where over 85% of that population has been inoculated.

Mase said the Sept. 1 deadline should give all of the county’s police, fire and emergency medical services agencies time to implement the inoculation requirement or mandatory testing.

County officials who participated in the virtual press conference, including public health and economic development representatives, said they did not know how many or what percentage of local first responders had not yet been vaccinated.

Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine said there are about 500 full-time firefighters across the county, as well as a number of volunteer fire companies. Most fire agencies only recently started requiring proof of vaccination, he said.

Heine said there are about 120 full-time and volunteer staff in the Sonoma County Fire District and he estimated that its vaccination rate was between 70% and 75%.

Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano said his department’s vaccination rate mirrored that of other city agencies, at around 75%.

Officials said compliance with the county’s new order should yield more information about the share of first responders that get inoculated.

The county’s vaccination directive is similar to the state’s requirement that workers in health care and high-risk congregate sites be inoculated or tested for the pandemic disease at least once a week. But it is less strict than vaccination requirements made by large medical providers such as Kaiser Permanente.

Issued Monday, Kaiser’s vaccination mandate does not allow for weekly testing as an alternative, and those who choose not to be vaccinated must obtain a medical or religious exemption. On Wednesday, Sutter Health took similar action requiring its entire workforce to get inoculated against COVID-19.

Mase, the county health officer, said she opted to work in partnership with local law enforcement and emergency response agencies to boost vaccination rates.

“I would like to start here, working very collaboratively with our fire, law enforcement, EMS and (disaster) shelter staff and see if we’re able to get more people vaccinated,” she said.

During the press conference, county public health staff said the latest COVID-19 data highlights the need for more people countywide to be fully vaccinated. The virus transmission rate in the county is 19.6 new daily infections per 100,000 residents, while the share of all COVID-19 tests that are positive is now 7%. Those numbers have ballooned from what they were in June and show the dire struggle underway to try to curb spread of the delta variant.

Officials said that 50% of all intensive-care patients at local hospitals, 21 in total, are suffering from COVID-19. There are 61 people hospitalized countywide for conditions related to the coronavirus. More than 80% of hospitalizations and more than 90% of ICU patients are unvaccinated.

Of the 21 ICU patients, two are fully vaccinated and have underlying health conditions.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

The inoculation or virus testing mandate for first responders will be applied to a broad range of county emergency agencies and law enforcement departments, and it will be up to each of them to enforce it.

How exactly employees who flout the order — for example, a police officer who refuses to show proof of vaccination or testing — will be handled remains to be seen.

“I think we would continue, as we’ve done from the very beginning of this pandemic, to work closely with our health partners to take the very important first step of making sure there’s plenty of education and opportunities for vaccination to occur,” Savano said.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Rainer Navarro said his staff is working closely with police unions to ensure compliance with the county’s order to get vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.

Navarro doesn’t know the percentage of his police officers who are fully vaccinated, though anecdotally, he said he hears it’s well above 50%.

“We’ve always had trust in our health officials to guide us,” Navarro said. “Things are constantly changing, and we’re working with them. At the very start of this, we lost one of our own. So I take it very seriously, the department takes it very seriously and we’ll do what’s needed to get over this (pandemic).”

Marylou Armer, a 44-year-old Santa Rosa Police detective, died March 31, 2020 due to complications from COVID-19.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s officials said they did not know how many of that agency’s 635 employees were vaccinated.

“I support the requirement that all law enforcement, fire, EMS, and disaster shelter staff get vaccinated or receive regular COVID testing,” Sheriff Mark Essick said in a statement. “Our personnel is at higher risk of exposure to COVID because of their work environment and the people they serve. It is important for them to be monitored and protected so they can stay healthy.”

Stephen Bussell, president of the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association, said he also supported the vaccination mandate and the alternative of regular testing and mask wearing. Police officers do not want to be part of the reason the dangerous delta variant continues ravaging the community, he said.

“It’s a challenge to balance the rights of our members, as well as the need for public safety,” Bussell said. “We understand why the mandate is coming. At the end of the day, we’re public servants.”

Meanwhile, county supervisors are expected in a couple weeks to consider a proposal that would extend the same first responder vaccination requirement to the nearly 4,500 county employees.

Mase also stressed that the business community should do the same.

“I strongly recommend that all employers in Sonoma County follow this policy,” Mase said of demanding inoculation. “Many workplaces are already doing this. Places like Google, Disney, The Gap and Walmart have begun mandating that their employees show proof of vaccination to protect against the spread of COVID-19.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the Aug. 17 date when Sonoma County Board of Superviors will consider a proposal that the nearly 4,500 county employees either get vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus testing.

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

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