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