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Sonoma County health officer reports COVID-19 transmission in the community minimal

Striking an optimistic tone, Sonoma County’s health officer said Monday the stay-at-home order in effect countywide since March 18 and related social distancing rules continue to suppress local spread of the new coronavirus.

Most of the county’s new cases, she said, are being discovered by tracing people who have contracted the virus after coming in close contact with a person already infected with COVID-19. Called “contact tracing,” it’s a targeted surveillance testing effort that has enabled local public health workers to better track and control the outbreak of the virus, Dr. Sundari Mase said during her daily press briefing.

Of the county’s confirmed 182 cases of the infectious disease as of Monday night, 93 of them are the result of people coming in close contact with another person who contracted the virus, according to county public health figures. That’s 51% of all the cases confirmed in the county.

“We’re not seeing that many cases that are popping up in the community (where there is) no reason why they would have COVID,” Mase said, adding that, “we’re on the right path. Everyone needs to continue to cooperate with the shelter-in-place order.”

There are 34 cases, or 19% of the total, in which local residents contracted the highly contagious virus from an unknown source in the community, county figures show.

During the briefing, Mase discussed ways she could loosen some of the public health emergency restrictions of her unprecedented shelter-in-place directive slated to last at least through May 3, but she gave no specific date for relaxing them.

County health department officials are working with the county parks department to evaluate the possibility of reopening some areas of local parks, she said.

“It’s something that we could monitor and enforce some of our other mitigation measures, so that is the one I’m looking at right now,” Mase said of the parks.

On Monday, protesters congregated at the state Capitol to demand Gov. Gavin Newsom lift the statewide indefinite shelter-in-place order entirely - many of whom did not wear face coverings or practice social distancing of at least 6 feet from one another. This was one of several demonstrations that recently have occurred across the country, including in Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio.

“If you’re going to protest, practice physical distancing,” Newsom said. “The worst thing we could do is make a decision based on politics and frustration.”

Protesters in Sacramento expressed concern about the detrimental effects of the state’s shutdown of routine daily life and most businesses on the economy, even questioning whether the coronavirus is worse than the regular flu. It is though. The coronavirus is about 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease and an adviser to President Donald Trump.

Mase, the county’s top public health official, has repeatedly said her restrictions that have closed most businesses, schools, parks and beaches must be loosened gradually over time, rather than all at once, in order to continue reducing the spread of the coronavirus. It originated in China in December 2019 and health experts declared in mid-March the virus had become a global pandemic.

According to the Sonoma County’s website, there was one new COVID-19 case that emerged Monday, one on Sunday and none reported on Saturday. Mase said Monday the public health contact tracing effort is usually conducted on Monday and Tuesday, while enhanced surveillance testing at local senior care centers and the county jail take place later in the week.

As of Monday night, the county had nearly the same number of active COVID-19 cases, 93, as the number of residents who have recovered from the virus, 87. Two Sonoma County residents have died of complications from the respiratory disease.

A total of 4,597 coronavirus tests have been conducted countywide, with 96% of tests resulting negative.

Mase discussed again Monday the possibility of introducing antibody testing to determine how many county residents might have coronavirus antibodies in their blood, indicating they previously were infected by the virus.

Some public health officials in the country have criticized the new antibody tests, pointing out that certain health care providers are misusing the results to diagnose COVID-19 and fail to realize the tests can miss early stages of infection.

But Mase said the county is planning to use one of three FDA-approved tests for local surveillance to see how many people previously were infected with the virus, rather than using the test to see if people are sick now.

“What I would like … is to broadly test our high-risk groups to see how much infection we had in first responders,” Mase said. “That’s very important to know.”

She cited a recent study conducted in Santa Clara County that analyzed coronavirus antibodies, which indicated the number of people infected there with COVID-19 was much higher than officially reported.

The study, conducted at Stanford University and based on 3,300 people, estimated between 48,000 and 81,000 residents of that county had coronavirus antibodies in their blood. The county had reported about 1,000 people tested positive for the coronavirus at the time of the study earlier this month.

“With antibody testing, we’ll know much better how many people are actually infected here in our county,” Mase said.

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