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