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State lifts Bay Area pandemic lockdown that loosens restrictions in Sonoma County

The most significant effects are the resumption of outdoor dining service, haircuts and a slew of personal care services, along with permission for small gatherings.|

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Although the coronavirus continues infecting Sonoma County residents at an alarming rate and more people in the community have died in January than any month in the pandemic, severe regional restrictions on businesses and public life were eased Monday by the governor and state health officials.

Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted regional stay-home orders statewide, including a Bay Area order, a move met with surprise and even dismay by some health officers and medical professionals who questioned the action while the virus rages.

Although they are incremental modifications, they will give the local economy a much-needed lift after the level of joblessness spiked in December, reversing steady monthly improvements since last April.

The most significant effects of the action are the resumption of outdoor dining service at area restaurants and brewpubs, haircuts and a slew of personal care services at salons and barbershops, along with people getting the go-ahead to gather with small groups of friends and go to the gym for outdoor workouts.

Trying to strike a delicate balance with the shift from a monthlong lockdown back to stiff but more moderate limitations, the health officer joined county leaders and local hospital officials in pleading with residents for caution and adherence to mask wearing and physical distancing despite being tired of isolation.

Mase urged residents to remain “vigilant” until the vaccine against COVID-19 is widely distributed.

“It’s not as if COVID has gone away,” said Dr. Chad Krilich, medical director for St. Joseph Health in Sonoma County, the owner of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. “I think everybody knows that. I think it’s important we continue to do the things that limit the spread ... social distancing, masks, hand-washing. Even if you have been vaccinated, you do these things to reduce the likelihood of spread.”

To speed the vaccine rollout that began last month, county health officials also said Monday they will partner with a private company to open a vaccination clinic Wednesday in Rohnert Park so people 75 years and older to get inoculated.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Public Health’s action Monday lifted the regional stay-home orders for the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley and Southern California regions, all of which had been triggered in mid-December by hospitals available beds for virus patients needing intensive care sharply on the decline. The governor also removed the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. state curfew, but San Francisco kept it in place.

County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase had the authority to maintain stricter local public health regulations, but decided against that.

“We look like we’re in a better place than we have been in the last six weeks,” she said. “I don’t want to say it’s a trend yet. But certainly our number of cases per day have come down. We’re more in the 100-200 cases per day now than 200-300, which we were seeing just a month ago. So things look like they’re going in the right direction.”

Still, the spreaad of the virus remains rampant in Sonoma County and deaths related to complications from the infectious disease are mounting. From Jan. 18 to 24, the county averaged about 205 new cases per day. That’s an improvement from earlier in the month, when there were almost 315 new daily cases from Jan. 4 to 13 — but worse than any point of the pandemic before mid-December.

Furthermore, county officials have reported 59 deaths in January, the highest monthly total surpassing the previous pandemic record of 43 in August. Overall, 251 local residents have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began last March death and about 25,000 residents have been infected.

With state health officials lifting the lockdown, California’s 58 counties return to levels of restrictions attached to the state’s four-stage, color-coded reopening plan. For Sonoma County, that means life in the purple tier, which includes the stiffest rules of the multifaceted regimen to combat widespread virus transmission.

To advance, the county would have to record no more than 7 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents on a rolling seven-day average and a virus test positivity rate of 8% or lower. As of Monday, those numbers were at 41.4 per 100,000 and 9.6%, respectively. Comparatively, in December when Mase had announced the stringent stay-home order would go into effect, there were 25 new daily virus cases per 100,000 residents and 162 local residents had lost their lives to COVID-19.

In the purple reopening stage where the county has been since late August when the state unveiled its new reopening guidance, retail shops are limited to 25% customer capacity; gyms, churches and museums can only operate outside; and social gatherings must be outdoors and include no more than 12 people from three households.

In early December when Newsom announced five regional stay-home orders, virus infections and hospitalizations were spiraling across the state in the wake of Thanksgiving gatherings. The orders hinged on the availability of ICU hospital beds in the respective regions. Below 15% of a region’s ICU beds triggered a lockdown. Sonoma County was part of the Bay Area region.

Mase announced preemptively a local stay-home order on Dec. 10 and the directive mirroring the state’s measures went into effect two days after that. On Dec. 16, the Bay Area fell below the 15% ICU bed availability, triggering the regional order which included Sonoma County. In effect, the county adopted that regional order, which state officials lifted Monday.

Bay Area hospital ICU capacity now has improved to 23.4%. Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of California Health of Human Services, said Monday projections show that figure should be up around 25% for Bay Area medical centers by late February.

“Of course, this can change,” Ghaly said. “If (virus) transmission rates go up, the projections four weeks from that moment might go lower.”

With much of California still experiencing the virus resurgence resulting in 23,000 new COVID-19 infections daily, the timing of Newsom’s decision to lift the state lockdown drew some criticism.

“Essentially, it’s a decision being made politically that puts people’s lives at risk, especially in Southern California,” Santa Clara County Executive Dr. Jeff Smith told The Mercury News.

Reacting to those who questioned whether his actions were for political reasons to help stave off a recall effort, Newsom called that nonsense.

“What is important to me is what I see in front of me every day,” said Krilich of St. Joseph Health. “And what I see in front of me for Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital is that we moved from an average number of patients in the hospital from 8 in November to 21 in December to 42 in January.”

The arrival of the vaccine last month brought hope and a community plea for faster distribution. This week’s opening of the vaccination clinic at the Rohnert Park Community Center, a partnership with OptumServe, is another step toward getting the county immunized against the coronavirus. Dr. Urmila Shende, Sonoma County’s vaccine manager, said the clinic giving shots will bring the number of county-run vaccination sites to eight.

The Rohnert Park site will be able to administer up to 420 doses of vaccine a day, boosting the county’s overall inoculations to about 2,500 daily. That number does not include vaccinations conducted by local hospitals, federally qualified health clinics or the CVS and Walgreens pharmacy chains, which are handling inoculations in long-term care facilities for the elderly here and nationwide.

The newest local vaccination site will first focus on residents over 75, who will be invited through local senior citizen community groups.

OptumServe is a familiar name to many people who have been tested for the coronavirus over the past 10 months. The county has hoped for weeks to transition the company’s drive-up sites from test swabs to COVID-19 shots.

Sonoma County was selected as one of four inoculation locations in California to be part of a pilot program with OptumServe administering vaccine doses.

“I guess you could say we made the case to be included,” Mase said. “And since we have an excellent relationship with OptumServe for testing, I think we were seen as a good site for that.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story said Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase lifted a local stay-home order Monday, following the state’s lead. State health officials and Gov. Gavin Newsom actually lifted a Bay Area regional stay-home order that included Sonoma County.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. 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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