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Sonoma County health officer details COVID-19 spike factors

New coronavirus infections among homeless people on Santa Rosa streets and residents of a skilled nursing center, as well as ongoing testing that detects the virus in Latino neighborhoods, led to a daily record of 50 new cases in Sonoma County, the top public health official said Tuesday.

The alarming spike Monday, the day more people so far were confirmed to have the infectious disease than any other since it emerged here March 2, represented a stark reminder of the serious threat posed by the virus, said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer.

“Fifty (cases in a day) is a lot and that is really concerning for me,” Mase said in an interview.

Her remark came the same day Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert who is advising President Donald Trump, told Congress America is enduring a “disturbing surge” of infections in certain states and the next two weeks would be critical to controlling community spread of the pathogen that “is not going to disappear.”

Late Tuesday night, the county announced 21 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 956. Of that total, 437 are considered active, 514 have recovered and five people have died.

In addition to revealing factors contributing to the recent local spate of fresh cases, Mase revealed Tuesday the source of some of these newest infections has been community spread. That’s the most concerning way the virus is transmitted, she and other health officials have said, because it means the origin of those COVID-19 cases can’t be pinpointed to a close contact or to travel to areas considered infection hot spots.

Despite the troubling increase of infections, Mase said the county continues to meet state benchmarks for containing the virus and, therefore, there is no need for her to reinstate strict public health emergency restrictions. The health officer was referring to her unprecedented directive, effective March 18 that effectively shut most business operations until her gradual reopening of the economy culminating with Friday’s reopening of personal services businesses such as gyms and nail salons, among other economic sectors.

Mase said county public health nurses are in the midst of contacting everyone who recently tested positive to determine exactly where their infections occurred. That includes the unidentified skilled nursing and senior residential care facilities and a local business that provides services for the homeless that’s experienced a viral outbreak. Also, there’s been recent virus testing in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood, and that likely contributed to the uptick in cases over the weekend and to start this week.

Mase declined to identify the business or the skilled nursing and senior care centers where recent viral outbreaks have occurred, citing federal privacy laws that protect individuals’ health information.

On Sunday, a man over 65 in poor health who had been a resident of an unidentified skilled nursing center, died at a local hospital from complications of the coronavirus. He had been hospitalized for less than 24 hours before he became the fifth person in the county to die from COVID-19.

Meanwhile, after listening last week to Mase’s advice and delaying rousting homeless from College Avenue and Sixth Street encampments under Highway 101, Santa Rosa officials said Tuesday they were moving ahead to clear people living there on the streets near downtown. Over the weekend, public health officials went to the encampments and tested homeless people for the virus and investigated whether any of them were close contacts of two transients recently infected.

David Gouin, city housing and community services director, said that as of Monday there had been no new cases of COVID-19 connected with the encampments, aside from two cases detected last week.

Gouin said beginning Wednesday, residents of the encampments will be offered an alternative place to stay, including Santa Rosa’s outdoor tent shelter at the Finley Community Center in the western part of the city, or at a number of other homeless shelters throughout the city and county.

“Many of these people have been provided this offer going back to the end of May,” Gouin said. “We offer an alternative, if they accept it great. If they don’t, they can’t occupy that space anymore.”

Mase said county public health workers would continue to test and retest residents of these city encampments even after the city clears them.

Meanwhile, the recent spike in local coronavirus cases has caused a sharp increase in the county’s case rate per 100,000 residents, a metric closely followed by state health officials. As of Tuesday, the county logged 54.8 cases per 100,000 in the past 14 days.

While Mase called the virus situation worrisome, the local case rate still is an acceptable level according to the state’s benchmarks for measuring progress containing the virus. If counties slip and have insufficient progress containing virus transmission and keeping hospitalizations low, state officials suggested respective county health officials consider reinstituting business sector limits or stay-home guidelines.

The state’s key public health measures of satisfactory progress include: having a case rate at or below 100 cases per 100,000 residents, or less than 25 per 100,000 combined with a testing positivity rate of less than 8%. The county’s positivity rate is only 2% of those tested have been confirmed to be infected.

Other factors include: having less than a 10% increase in hospitalizations; keeping available at least 20% of local hospital intensive-care unit bed capacity for COVID-19 patients; and at least 25% of area hospital ventilators available for them.

The county meets all of these benchmarks, Mase said Tuesday.

“One good indicator is we don't have as many hospitalizations; we don't have the kinds of deaths we're seeing in other counties, and we don't have ICU beds full of COVID patients,” she said in the interview. “Those are the good things.”

On Monday and Tuesday officials at Kaiser Permanente medical center and Santa Rosa Memorial, Petaluma Valley, Sutter Santa Rosa Regional and Healdsburg District hospitals confirmed they had not seen any uptick in virus patients admitted.

But one hospital official warned local residents should not let their guard down, particularly as the virus keeps emerging in clusters around Sonoma County and the state.

Dr. Stephen Parodi, associate executive director of The Permanente Medical Group for Kaiser in Northern California, said in a prepared statement Tuesday recent increases in COVID-19 cases throughout California is a reminder the virus is actively spreading in local communities.

“Our facilities and staff have remained ready to respond to a surge, and safely and expertly treat patients with the virus,” Parodi said.

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

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