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Sonoma County reports COVID-19 cases tied to December holiday gatherings

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Sonoma County health officials on Tuesday reported there are 131 cases of the coronavirus directly linked to Christmas and New Year’s gatherings, although they acknowledged the figure likely is greater.

The actual number of holiday-related infections remains unclear because there’s insufficient information about the virus source among many who have contracted the infectious disease, officials said.

During the holiday season at the end of 2020, officials said the county's new COVID-19 case rates already were elevated following Thanksgiving the previous month.

That greater risk of virus spread through gatherings and travel was particularly high in late December, said Kathryn Pack, health program manager for the county’s epidemiology team.

“While certainly not the only factor driving the latest surge, we know gatherings play a significant role in increasing spread,” Pack said.

Local residents’ infections indirectly tied to December “holiday cases” are still emerging, she said. This includes people who came into contact with a person who contracted COVID-19 and later tested positive, along with any people they subsequently infected.

The 131 cases directly tied to holidays last month reflect what public health investigators know about initial transmission during the late-December holidays.

Just before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, county public health officials urged local residents to minimize their exposure to the highly contagious virus by foregoing gatherings with people outside their households.

About a month after the Thanksgiving holiday, officials reported that 14% of the county’s cases from Nov. 21 to Dec. 21 were caused by small and large gatherings, including 89 virus cases directly linked to Thanksgiving get-togethers. At that time, the county was reporting a transmission rate of 44.4 new daily cases per 100,000 residents.

This week, the county similarly reported a virus transmission rate of 42.2 new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents. The test positivity rate, or the average share of coronavirus tests during a seven-day period, is 8.3%, while the share of positive tests among the county’s lower-income residents is 13.3%.

All three metrics measuring virus spread leaves the county in the most restrictive tier of the state’s four-part reopening plan, which Gov. Gavin Newsom reinstated Monday after lifting regional stay-home orders.

That move allowed the resumption of outdoor dining service at area restaurants and brewpubs, haircuts and a slew of personal care services at salons and barbershops, along with people getting the go-ahead to gather with small groups of friends and go to the gym for outdoor workouts.

County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said it’s difficult to say what the fallout ultimately will be from virus infections tied to December holidays. She hopes the just-lifted regional stay-home order may have slowed virus spread.

During summer holidays, such as July 4 and Labor Day, there was no such directives, she said.

“There was nothing to restrict people and we saw this big increase in cases,” Mase said. “Hopefully, the stay-at-home order that we’ve been under for the past six weeks would mitigate some of the impact of gatherings and travel.”

There has been a slight decrease in new local COVID-19 infections this week. Whether that continues depends on how quickly people are vaccinated and the continued adherence to masking, social distancing and proper hygiene, she said.

On Tuesday, county officials also released details about the latest fatalities related to complications from the virus, six deaths since Saturday bringing the monthly and pandemic totals to 59 and 251, respectively, as of Tuesday. The deaths occurred between Jan. 14 and Jan. 20 and include four men and two women.

Three were skilled nursing home residents and three were among the general population. All six died in local hospitals, and four were over 64, one was between 50 and 64 and one was between 18 and 49.

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

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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