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Sonoma County hospital staff breathing easier with fewer and less sick COVID-19 patients

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

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

The phenomenal success of the coronavirus vaccine is now clearly evident at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, where it’s been two weeks since staff have needed to admit a COVID-19 patient.

The volume of those patients has dropped off sharply, and it has narrowed new cases to a smaller pool of unvaccinated younger people. Because they are young, they tend to fare better in recovery.

Some patients have been treated in Sutter clinics and in the emergency department, but they’re now usually sent home that same day.

“We have never had a vaccinated person admitted to the hospital,” said Shaun Ralston, a hospital spokesman. “Vaccinated people are just not ending up in the hospital.”

Inside the hospital, medical staff — though still wearing blue surgical masks — are breathing easier as the pandemic wanes. Nurse staffing ratios are back to normal, visitors are allowed into the hospital, there are people in waiting rooms and the gift shop is open.

What you don’t see these days are nurses going in and out of patient rooms in full-protective gear. Space suit-like PAPRs — powered air-purifying respirators — frequently used during deadly surges last summer and in the winter now sit in boxes near nurses’ stations and on mobile carts.

“It’s amazing,” said Melissa Nagle, the manager of ICU and respiratory therapy at Sutter hospital. “The most significant difference now is the lack of death...our job is to save people’s lives, and we’re very successful 99% of the time, but with COVID, it just didn’t happen that way.”

Across Northern California, Sutter Health has seen its COVID patient rates decline, with many of its hospitals recording multiple days with few to zero COVID patients. The heath care giant has seen its hospital stays for coronavirus patients reduced system-wide from 20 days to 8 days.

Dr. Willliam Isenberg, chief quality and safety officer for the Sutter Health network, said six months ago Sutter hospitals saw 15 times the current number of COVID-19 patients in hospital beds.

In an interview last Friday, Isenberg said there were only 15 clinic patients diagnosed with COVID-19 across Sutter’s Northern California network, compared to several hundred six months ago.

“We’re seeing not only within Sutter Health but all around the state significant decreases in the numbers,” Isenberg said.

Other local hospitals are seeing similar declines in COVID hospitalizations.

Dr. Michael Shulman, physician-in-chief at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center, said the decline in hospitalization rates mirror the general decline in COVID-19 transmission since the start of the year.

“We are typically seeing none to just a few COVID-19 cases admitted to our Santa Rosa hospital,” Shulman said. “We remain ready to care for any additional cases.”

But Shulman said the virus is still circulating and encouraged local residents to continue to be vigilant and, if eligible, to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer at, Providence St. Joseph Health, which runs Santa Rosa Memorial, Petaluma Valley and Healdsburg Hospital, said he’s seen similar declines in the volume of COVID patients. Krilich echoed the call to heed experts’ vaccination advice, especially with highly transmissible variants now circulating in Sonoma County.

Isenberg said that although current COVID hospitalization rates are far less than they were during the winter surge, they are about the same as they were this time last year, just before the summer surge.

One big difference, however, is there was no vaccine last year and the virus would eventually rampage through the local community. By late summer, COVID-19 would take hold of numerous assisted living and skilled nursing homes, killing 165 seniors, accounting for half of the county’s 317 COVID-19 deaths.

Isenberg said today most of the people testing positive at the hospital are those who have not been vaccinated, either because they have opted not to be inoculated or because they’re under 12 and are not eligible to receive the vaccine.

As of June 21, the share of eligible Sonoma County residents who have been fully vaccinated was 65%. Another 9% are awaiting their second shot and 26% of the local population have not been inoculated. Such vaccination rates have brought dramatic relief to the health care landscape.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said the decline in hospitalization rates is expected. “We're not seeing really negative outcomes from COVID because of vaccinations,” she said, “And we’ve vaccinated 74% of the population either fully or partially.”

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

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Isenberg warned that new mutations of the coronavirus, such as the more transmissible delta strain, are now spreading in Europe and across the United States. According to the latest local data, the delta strain, B.1.617.2, now comprises 6.8% of the 265 coronavirus variant infections detected in Sonoma County as of Monday.

Experts say existing COVID-19 vaccines still offer significant protection against variants, including the dangerous delta variant.

“We have to still be careful,” Isenberg. “We can’t forget all the things we learned about hand washing and just being careful. But vaccination is crucially important.”

According to the latest state data on coronavirus hospitalizations, as of June 21 there were 16 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Sonoma County hospitals. That number has been trending upward since the end of late last month, when local coronavirus hospitalizations reached as low as 5 on May 28.

But even at 16, pandemic hospitalizations are nowhere near the level they were during the winter, when there were 110 residents taking up overnight patient beds on Jan. 7.

It was a time of fear and anxiety, said Nancy Warren, patient care manager at Sutter Regional’s Vineyard View Suites, a medical/surgical unit where COVID-19 patients were previously seen.

Warren, who has been with the local Sutter hospital for 20 years, said medical staff can now focus on what she called “deferred maintenance,“ other illnesses and conditions that local residents may have been neglecting during the pandemic.

"We are feeling a little more at ease and happy to be back to normal, though we’re not entirely sure what normal is,“ she said, adding that she’s thankful Sutter continually provided the necessary protective gear to keep her and her co-workers safe.

Going forward, Warren said the COVID-19 vaccines have undeniably changed the equation, should another surge occur.

“I feel that with a higher percentage of people vaccinated, we are prepared,” Warren said.

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

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