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Sonoma County officials make urgent plea to avoid Christmas, New Year’s gatherings

The admonition from public health officials came the day new data revealed how Thanksgiving holiday travel helped drive coronavirus transmission the past month.|

Safe Christmas, New Year’s holiday recommendations

Sonoma County public health officials are urging residents to:

* Avoid nonessential holiday travel. If you travel, plan to self-quarantine after you return home.

* Gather with those only in immediate households; other gatherings are prohibited under the regional stay-home order.

* Be aware that health risks related to holiday get-togethers are particularly acute with escalating COVID-19 case rates. Those older than 65 could face significant health risks.

* Consider virtual Christmas and New Year’s celebrations with friends and extended family.

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Just days before Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays, Sonoma County public health officials on Tuesday released evidence showing Thanksgiving gatherings were a strong driver of the alarming spike in new coronavirus cases countywide the past month.

Hoping to avoid an even greater surge of infections in January that could overwhelm county and state hospitals, local public health officials and executives at California’s largest hospital systems made an urgent plea for residents to avoid gathering outside their homes for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.

“This is not the time to take the risk of gathering and increasing our case numbers and rates. This is not the time to have even more widespread transmission,” county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said. “This is a time to limit transmission, so our vaccine efforts can be even more successful.“

The dire warning from Mase came on the same day county health officials reported six more coronavirus-related deaths, bringing the pandemic total since March to 180 fatalities. The latest deaths occurred between Dec. 15 and 20 and included three skilled nursing home residents: two women and one man older than 64. Otherwise, two local female residents between 50 and 64 also died, while another male resident over 64 was among the deaths.

On the bright side, more local residents were inoculated Tuesday as the county public health division administered its first shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. At the public health lab, 160 paramedics, emergency medical technicians and firefighters received shots. Overall, 1,400 first responders are expected to be vaccinated soon. On Friday, county hospitals started giving shots to high-priority health care workers from the nearly 5,000 first vaccine doses that arrived a day earlier.

Health officials said 14% of Sonoma County's coronavirus cases in the past 30 days through Monday were caused by small and large gatherings, including 89 fresh virus infections directly linked to Thanksgiving get-togethers.

Of the 89 infections, 77% were cases in which an individual with COVID-19 attended a Thanksgiving gathering; 20% of the cases involved a Thanksgiving event as the most probable cause of contracting the respiratory disease; and 3% involved travel inside and outside the state for a holiday gathering.

County health officials examined new COVID-19 case data from Nov. 21 to Dec. 21 and found that at least 150 of the 1,063 new cases were tied to Thanksgiving events and other gatherings.

Kathryn Pack, health program manager for the county's epidemiology team, said that figure is likely higher since in a little more than a quarter of those 1,000-plus infections over the past month, individuals did not provide enough information to determine the source of virus transmission.

Pack said a similar “bump“ in local cases has been documented after each significant holiday since the pandemic disease started in the spring. As the virus continues to rapidly spread throughout the county, the likelihood of encountering an infected person sharply increases, she said.

“You kind of have this exponential effect, so the frightening thing would be if we’re up at this rate and then we have gatherings for Christmas,” Pack said.

According to the newly released county data revealing the flood of cases since a few days before Thanksgiving, the holiday gatherings ranged from 2 to 30 individuals. Small gatherings of 12 or fewer people accounted for 73% of the get-togethers, while 27% were large gatherings of more than 12 attendees.

When the holiday events included multiple guests from various households, in some instances 50% to 100% of guests at those gatherings contracted COVID-19. Contributing factors to the spread of the virus at these indoor and outdoor holiday gatherings included: guests who came from outside the county or state; masks were not worn or worn inconsistently; and common pandemic precautions were relaxed for hugs among family members and friends and to eat together without masks.

Concern over the potential detrimental effects of holiday gatherings this week and next as 2021 begins comes as virus transmission rates countywide and in most of California surge dramatically.

The county’s current virus transmission rate is 44.4 new daily cases per 100,000 residents — more than double the number in the past week and triple in the past month. By comparison, less than a month ago the transmission rate was 13.1 new daily cases per 100,000 people. On Tuesday, the county reported 203 more COVID-19 cases during the previous 24 hours, bringing the total number since the pandemic began nine months ago to 17,208 cases. Of that total, there were 4,677 active virus cases as of Tuesday, while 12,351 local residents who were infected have recovered.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday executives from among the state’s largest hospital systems including Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health, both of which operate medical centers in Sonoma County, held a virtual press conference urging residents statewide to avoid holiday gatherings. The hospital executives said several hospitals across California are full with many of the patients diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Kaiser Chairman and CEO Greg Adams said Kaiser’s Downey Medical Center in Southern California is among the health care provider’s most severely hit hospitals, with 70% of 278 current patients infected with COVID-19.

“In our (Downey) ICU, 95% of our patients are COVID patients,” Adams said. “Today's press conference came about because of the surge in COVID patients happening throughout California and our desire as health systems to do what we can to slow the spread and continue to care for patients.”

The hospital leaders said the behavior of Californians through the end of 2020 and into January could lead to a deluge of new coronavirus cases that will overrun hospitals across the state.

Dr. Stephen Parodi, associate executive director of The Permanente Medical Group for Kaiser in Northern California, urged residents to stay home for Christmas and the start of the new year.

“What I think we’re seeing right now is the Thanksgiving Day celebration effect,” Parodi said. “If you look at the timing and when we started seeing the increased surge, it’s related to the (holiday) travel. It's related to the gatherings, and we understand why people have done it.

“But we are really making a clarion, desperate call to California to not repeat what happened at Thanksgiving,” Parodi said.

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

Safe Christmas, New Year’s holiday recommendations

Sonoma County public health officials are urging residents to:

* Avoid nonessential holiday travel. If you travel, plan to self-quarantine after you return home.

* Gather with those only in immediate households; other gatherings are prohibited under the regional stay-home order.

* Be aware that health risks related to holiday get-togethers are particularly acute with escalating COVID-19 case rates. Those older than 65 could face significant health risks.

* Consider virtual Christmas and New Year’s celebrations with friends and extended family.

Source: Sonoma County Department of Health Services

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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