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Sonoma County issues ban on large gatherings amid omicron surge

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.

Amid an alarming surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the rapid spread of the omicron variant, Sonoma County health officials on Monday issued a 30-day ban on large public indoor and outdoor gatherings.

Health officials also issued a communitywide appeal for Sonoma County residents to avoid leaving their homes except to go to work or school or for other necessary trips, such as the grocery store or the doctor’s office. The appeal, also for 30 days, is not a strict local health mandate.

Since the pandemic, the county has typically issued such public health orders in concert with other Bay Area counties, but this time it acted unilaterally in the face of the alarming spike in cases.

(Map: Find COVID-19 testing near you in Sonoma County)

The new health order — which takes effect 12:01 a.m. Wednesday — would prohibit large public gatherings indoors of more than 50 people, as well as outdoor gatherings of more than 100. The move is in response to skyrocketing COVID-19 case rates in Sonoma County, which threaten to overwhelm local hospitals, officials said.

County school officials said the order will limit spectator attendance to some school activities, such as athletic events and arts performances, but it does not apply to normal classroom or recess activities.

Many local entertainment venues, some already working through backlogs of events rescheduled from last year, were racing Monday afternoon to adapt to the latest restrictions.

The new health order was revealed late Monday, along with a videotaped appeal on YouTube from Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer. Mase asked local pandemic-weary residents to stay the course.

“While we may be done with COVID, COVID is not done with us,” Mase said. “Due to the Omicron variant, our case rate has never been higher and our hospitalizations are beginning to climb.”

Mase said in a telephone interview Monday evening that she understands people’s frustration with health orders and chose not to issue a strict shelter-in-place rule like one put in place early in the pandemic in 2020.

“I’m hoping the public will hear us and just try to stay at home, try not to gather, wear your masks, get vaccinated — that’s really the key,” she said, adding that a strict shelter-in-place order would be “too restrictive, especially because we do have some positive signs that potentially omicron is not as virulent.”

Mase said widespread community transmission is leading to more COVID-19 patients in the hospital — some are being treated for COVID-19 illness while others are going into the hospital for something else and testing positive for the virus when they are admitted.

But even if omicron causes less severe COVID-19 illness, health officials said something needs to be done to address the tsunami of cases being detected in Sonoma County. Limiting gatherings is a good place to start, Mase said.

Last week, local health officials reported that large and small gatherings are the cause of more than 50% of confirmed COVID-19 cases where the source of transmission has been determined.

Aside from limiting large gatherings in general, the order also specifies that gatherings of individuals who are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 must be limited to no more than 12 people, except for family gatherings.

Under the new order, a gathering is defined as any public or private event that brings people together in a single room or single space at the same time. This includes in an auditorium, gymnasium, stadium, arena, large conference room, wedding venue, meeting hall, or any other indoor or outdoor space.

Such gatherings may have either assigned or unassigned seating, and may be either general admission or gated, ticketed and permitted events, officials said.

The order exempts workplace settings, courthouse activities, places of worship, cafeterias, or any venue that is open to the public as part of regular operations, including shopping malls, stores, restaurants and museums.

The order does apply, however, to performing arts venues.

A sold-out performance by Cedric the Entertainer scheduled this weekend at Graton Casino and Resort has been rescheduled for March, and employees at the 1,600 seat Luther Burbank Center, officials were working to notify patrons and cancel or reschedule 10 large-scale events that had been scheduled for the coming month.

It was a similar scene playing out at other venues throughout the county Monday.

“Many of us are asking ourselves, “Is it the right thing to do to still gather?” said Michele Kappel, of The Lost Church music venue in downtown Santa Rosa. “We’re rolling with the punches. We’ve been through it once; we’ll do it again. We want our audiences to stay safe and our artists to feel comfortable performing.”

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.

Under the county’s order, large gatherings do not include those that occur as a part of regular school instructional events or outdoor recess.

Sonoma County education officials said school-based athletic events and arts performances can continue to be held, as long as the total number of people present does not exceed limits laid out in the health order — no more than 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.

That capacity limit includes spectators and participants, such as athletes, musicians, coaches and instructors. School officials said schools should refrain from holding dances, fundraising events or in-person assemblies for the duration of the health order, which expires Feb. 11.

Several local school and union officials spoke positively about the fact that in-person learning is continuing, while expressing some reservations as absences among students and staff continue to rise in the return from winter break.

“There’s a lot of people who think we should close for a week or two, to give everybody a chance to test and isolate and quarantine if needed,” said Kathryn Howell, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association. “I don’t think we’re going to close schools and I’m not convinced personally we should. It would, I think, at this point, be really disruptive to the kids and the families. But there is some (interest in) the idea of, ‘Can we pivot to distance learning for one week?’”

Operations have not yet reached a critical level in large part because of other mitigation measures that weren’t in place a year ago.

“We didn’t have vaccines a year ago, we didn’t have preventive medicines,” said Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools. In addition, he noted, the federal and state government provided funds to schools to cover expenses involved with keeping schools open safely, including upgrades and maintenance of their air filtration systems.

Herrington reiterated that only Sonoma County Public Health can unilaterally close classrooms or campuses due to COVID spread. Student and staff absences, while presenting challenges in the first two weeks back, remain manageable, to hear local officials tell it.

In addition to last week’s distribution of rapid antigen tests from the state to students, SCOE will also distribute high-quality Kn95 and N95 masks to school staff and students later this week, Herrington said.

In Monday’s appeal for greater vigilance, Mase asked residents to trade their cloth masks for surgical masks or KN95, KF94 or N95 masks. She said traditional cloth masks are not as effective in stopping the spread of omicron.

The rate at which the omicron mutation is spreading in Sonoma County is staggering, with infections achieving levels unheard of during previous surges.

According to the county’s latest public health data, the current transmission rate is an average of 121.4 new daily cases per 100,000. That means the county is logging an average of 600 new COVID-19 cases a day. The share of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is now 16.5%, significantly higher than the test positivity during last year’s winter surge, at just below 10%.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has also spiked in the past week, going from about 30 a week ago to 76 on Sunday, according to county public health data. It’s unclear how many of those “COVID-19 patients” entered the hospital because of COVID-19 illness and how many sought hospital care for something else but also tested positive for the virus.

Kathryn Pack, health program manager for the county’s epidemiology team said all COVID-19 patients, whether they’re in the hospital for COVID-19 illness or something else, put a strain on hospital resources.

Pack said in an email, hospital staff “must take extra precautions with COVID-positive patients to avoid spread/outbreaks, which puts further strain on bed capacity and increases risks of staff becoming ill.”

Staff writers Mya Constantino and Dan Taylor contributed to this report.

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

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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