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Sonoma County reports seven more COVID-19 deaths among seniors

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Sonoma County public health officials on Tuesday reported seven more deaths tied to COVID-19, all them residents over the age of 65 with underlying health conditions who either lived in skilled nursing facilities or residential care homes.

The deaths, some of which date back to last week, were the most announced in a single day since the pandemic began. They bring the coronavirus death toll as of Tuesday to 31 people, with 25 being residents of skilled nursing homes or residential care facilities for the elderly.

Dr. Sundari Mase said Tuesday the deaths were a tragic reminder of the devastating impact the new coronavirus is having on vulnerable residents living in senior care centers. She and other county officials expressed frustration at the growing number of deaths inside such facilities, which the county lacks the authority to regulate.

“Our hearts go out to the families. I have great empathy for the families that are dealing with their seniors that are in the situation of being in these really vulnerable facilities,” said Mase.

Health officials said the deaths, four women and three men, occurred at four different skilled nursing homes but would not identify the facilities. The California Department of Public Health requires skilled nursing homes to report COVID-19 deaths within 24 hours.

As of Monday, only three facilities have reported deaths: Broadway Villa Post Acute in Sonoma and EmPres Post Acute Health and Rehabilitation in Petaluma and Petaluma Post Acute. The state’s data lags by one day, so it was unclear Tuesday whether these seven deaths also occurred at those facilities or others.

Mase said she continues to work with the skilled nursing homes and other county officials to identify a site to designate as a “COVID-positive” site for local skilled nursing home residents who are infected with the virus. The goal would be to separate those who have the virus from those who don’t.

“All of us, including the state of California, have been trying to find a solution, find a way in which we can protect this vulnerable group,” Mase said. “Unfortunately, when COVID gets into a facility, it rapidly transmits amongst a really vulnerable population.”

Mase, who has for most of the pandemic maintained a calm tone, struck an urgent note Tuesday, calling on skilled nursing home administrators to come up with a solution to help keep their residents safe. She said the county does not have regulatory oversight over skilled nursing homes, which answer to the state.

“They are regulated and licensed by the state of California. We don't have any oversight over them, so it's very difficult for us to mandate things,” she said.

Mase said she sympathizes with family members who have loved ones in these homes, many of which are clearly not equipped to handle a virus as contagious as the new coronavirus. Mase has often pointed out that many of the facilities have multiple residents in a single room and some share employees, which is how the virus gets into the facilities in the first place.

“It must be awful,” she said of those seniors living in local skilled nursing facilities and their family members who are obviously worried about them.

“It's something that we need to bring out — it’s an unacceptable situation from the county perspective,” she said.

Crista Barnett Nelson, executive director of Senior Advocacy Services, a regional agency that runs the Sonoma County Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, said the current crisis at local skilled nursing homes could have been prevented if there was a facility to place residents once they’d been diagnosed with the virus.

“It’s heartbreaking, it’s absolutely a tragedy and it could have been avoided,” she said. “If we were able to isolate COVID-positive residents and have staff adhere to infection-control procedures this wouldn’t have happened.

“How many of our seniors have to die before our county leaders step up to fix this problem?”

Susan Gorin, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said county officials have been desperately trying to find a solution to the crisis at skilled nursing homes. She agreed with Mase that a site needs to be identified where all the COVID-19 positive residents from such homes could be treated.

“What we really need to do is to separate these folks,” she said.

Gorin said it’s difficult to imagine the “despair” being felt right now by family members of people who are staying in skilled nursing homes. County health orders severely restrict residents of such facilities from having visitors, a rule aimed at preventing the residents from being infected by the virus.

But the virus is already in the facilities.

The virus has now infected residents or staff at 16 of the county’s 20 skilled nursing homes, with the largest outbreaks being at Broadway Villa, which has a total of 46 residents and 21 staff members infected.

EmPres Post Acute Health and Rehabilitation has had 30 residents infected and at least one staff member. Petaluma Post acute has reported 16 residents and 15 staffers have come down with the virus. Sonoma Post Acute reported on Monday that it had 19 residents and at least one worker with the virus.

“We are so sad to lose our elders, no matter what the situation is,” Gorin said. “They died alone and our family members weren’t able to be with them and it’s truly tragic.”

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

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that four of seven deaths of seniors reported initially on Wednesday, July 29, were people living in residential care facilities. The other three were residents of skilled nursing homes.

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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