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Sonoma County in the middle of its biggest COVID-19 surge yet

The spike in cases has happened so suddenly that it’s still too early to detect whether the infections will translate into a proportional spike in hospitalizations and fatalities.|

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

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

The skyrocketing winter surge of COVID-19 cases in Sonoma County could surpass all previous virus waves since the pandemic began nearly two years ago, local health officials said Wednesday.

Driven largely by the omicron variant, a highly infectious strain of the coronavirus that hits both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, the current surge is generating an average of 200 to 300 new infections a day, officials said.

In early December, that figure was averaging less than 40 new cases a day. During a press briefing Wednesday, the county’s first COVID-19 update of the year, officials said rates are likely to continue climbing for several weeks.

“We have been preparing for the next wave of the pandemic due to the omicron variant, and now it is upon us,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer.

“We are nearly at where we were, I believe, at the very height of our case rate last year, and we expect rates are going to go up because we’ve just had holiday gatherings,” Mase said. “I expect that we’re going to exceed our case rate from last year, and it kind of follows because omicron is so much more transmissible.”

During the press briefing, officials pointed out that the current transmission rate was 56 new daily cases per 100,000 residents. During the peak of the winter surge last year, which remains the deadliest period of the pandemic, that rate reached 54.8 daily cases per 100,000 people.

Officials said the dramatic spike in cases over the past two weeks has happened so suddenly that it’s still too early to know whether so many infections will translate into a proportional spike in hospitalizations and deaths.

County officials said hospitalizations are in fact increasing, though nowhere near the level they were at this time last year.

News that Sonoma County was now squarely in the midst of another winter surge came as state public health officials announced that the statewide indoor mask mandate would be extended a month to Feb. 15. The move was in response to the fast-spreading omicron mutation, said Mark Ghaly, the state’s Health and Human Services Secretary.

The rule requires Californians to wear masks in all indoor public settings, whether they are vaccinated or not. Mase, the county health officer, applauded the move, noting that the current surge could last well into January.

“I think it’s totally appropriate because we don’t know where we’re going with the omicron surge,” she said. “If we really are anticipating a surge until the end of January, it makes sense for us to keep our indoor masks at least until Feb. 15.”

During the county’s COVID-19 briefing, Kathryn Pack, health program manager for the county’s epidemiology team, said virus transmission is widespread and taking place in many sectors of the community. Pack said that large and small gatherings, such as holiday office parties and friend or family gatherings, now account for 50% of cases where the source of transmission is known.

“We currently have the highest proportion of cases due to gatherings (than) at any point in the pandemic,” Pack said.

Recent outbreaks at local institutions include one at the Sonoma County Main Jail, where at least seven employees and 12 inmates tested positive for the virus since the first positive case was detected Dec. 28. Some 200 inmates in two jail blocks are on lockdown as a result.

On Wednesday, Santa Rosa city officials reported that two homeless residents at Samuel Jones Hall, the largest shelter in the county, had tested positive for the virus on Monday. Representatives with Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, the nonprofit that operates Sam Jones, identified two additional cases at its family shelter near downtown.

None of the four residents had been hospitalized as of Wednesday. While it’s unclear how the virus made its way into the shelters, officials said the new infections were not unexpected. Kelli Kuykendall, Santa Rosa’s homeless services manager, said the outbreaks were “alarming, but not shocking given what’s happening communitywide.”

Local public health staff and medical providers are keeping a close eye on the fallout from the surge, given that COVID-19 hospitalizations lag case rates by several weeks.

The county’s COVID-19 website currently lists 34 COVID-19 patients in hospitals, six in intensive care. That’s the highest number of local residents hospitalized with COVID-19 since Oct. 4, when there were 36. Hospitalization numbers have remained steady since the fall, ranging between 20 and 30, but there has been a slight uptick in recent days.

Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for Providence Sonoma County, said there are currently 21 people hospitalized with COVID-19 at Providence’s Santa Rosa Memorial, Petaluma Valley and Healdsburg hospitals.

“Most COVID patients are in our medical surgical units currently and not in the ICU,” Krilich said in an email. “Of the 21 patients that are hospitalized at all three hospitals, one is in the ICU.”

Krilich said the daily census for COVID-19 patients at Santa Rosa Memorial has increased roughly four-fold in the past 30 days. There are currently 17 COVID-19 patients at Memorial, but that is still well below the 32 during the delta surge over the summer and 49 last January.

At Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center, hospital officials noted in a statement that the current surge is the “steepest we have seen since the start of the pandemic.” But the health care giant said that while hospitalizations have increased steadily since the holidays, they are not increasing as quickly as in previous surges.

Though hospitals are currently not overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 patients, at least not to the degree they were last year at this time, the pandemic continues to slam staffing levels at local health care facilities due to infections among health care employees.

Wendy Young, the executive director of the Sonoma-Mendocino-Lake Medical Association, said her organization has received numerous calls from physician practices looking for rapid tests for staff who have been exposed and are unable to return to work until they have taken a test.

“If the physicians do not have staff, the offices will close and cancel patient care,” Young said, adding that she has reached out to the state medical association to request test kits from the state to provide to local physician practices. CMA wasn’t optimistic in its response to the request, indicating that the shortage of tests is statewide.

Mase, the county health officer, said predicting the severity of the current omicron surge in terms of hospitalizations and deaths is “a crystal ball question.” But vaccination, she said, greatly reduces the impact of the virus.

“Comparing our vaccinated and unvaccinated populations shows that unvaccinated people are four times more likely to be infected with COVID; 17 times more likely to be hospitalized; and 14 times more likely to die.”

Pack said that state modeling, while not perfect, shows that increasing the number of people getting booster shots could help Sonoma County avoid a surge in hospitalizations and deaths.

“It does suggest that getting boosted and staying fully vaccinated, fully updated on your vaccinations could be a key factor in preventing hospital capacity issues this winter,” Pack said.

On Wednesday, health officials reported the latest COVID-19 death, an unvaccinated man between 60 and 70 with an underlying health issue who died at a local hospital on Dec. 17. The fatality marks the 419th pandemic death.

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

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

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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