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Sonoma County residents yearn for freer routines as pandemic slowly subsides

Insight: Life After The Pandemic

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This debut edition, publishing in print on March 28, is focused on stories examining how our lives will be different after the pandemic abates. Look for the next Insight section in late June.

Read all the stories here.

In the most optimistic scenario, the coronavirus that’s gripped Sonoma County and the nation for a year simply goes away, by mutating itself out of existence.

That kind of exit would be similar to what happened in 2004 when the highly virulent SARS respiratory disease caused by a coronavirus that came from China suddenly lost its ability to spread from one person to the next, said Dr. Lee Riley, who heads the infectious disease and vaccinology division at UC Berkeley.

Unfortunately, hope that the new coronavirus soon bows out is more wishful thinking by the public than smart science, Riley and other infectious disease experts say.

What’s more likely, they say, is the pathogen either will evolve into a less dangerous cold virus or become like the ever-mutating influenza virus, requiring annual vaccinations to combat.

In either case, experts think COVID-19 is likely to remain with us for another year, or maybe indefinitely, and any hope that we’re now moving into a post-pandemic cycle is premature.

“No matter what, each of these scenarios suggests ... that we’re going to have to continue to deal with this virus,” Riley said. “It’s going to take many, many years before we get back to the complete, normal type of life that we were used to.“

When will this be over?

Now with the county and state reopening and expanding public and economic activities more broadly as virus infections dissipate, we’re in for a tricky stabilizing process expected to play out through 2021 and beyond. The public needs to stay vigilant, wearing face masks and keeping prudent social distance from people outside immediate families, against a depleted but not defeated virus, public health and infectious disease experts say.

Although potential transmission of coronavirus variants remains a big wild card, County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said residents could see a return to some kind of normalcy by this time next year. Until then, public health precautionary measures will remain in place, she said.

That’s not really what pandemic-weary Sonoma County wants to hear after a year of isolation and lockdown. The burning question on everyone’s mind is when will this grueling stretch of pain, human loss and financial turmoil be over? Also, can we safely go to summer events and festivals, and send children to camp? Will the Sonoma County Fair be held? Will students return to normal in-class instruction next fall?

The answers to some of those questions are still up in the air. Others will come soon in the form of evolving local and state public health rules aimed at allowing a more open community where people can safely mingle and return to workplaces.

“It’s not a light switch, and some people are looking for us to flip that switch and suddenly see a room just like it was two years ago,” said Lynda Hopkins, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, the elected leaders with oversight over the local pandemic response. “It’s going to be much more gradual than that.”

Tomorrow’s “normal” hopefully will be achieved in milestones, Hopkins said, such as a vaccinated resident being able to hug a friend or families being able to visit elders in nursing homes.

“Every little thing puts us closer to that big, beautiful normal, but it’s going to be incremental,” she said.

Expect restrictions and some level of limits on large gatherings and community holiday events this summer, Mase said.

The public health policies and procedures for the next part of the lingering pandemic are taking shape. Last week, state Sen. Mike McGuire said state health officials soon would be releasing guidelines on such things as summer camps, community events and festivals.

And Hopkins said she and other county officials, including Supervisor David Rabbitt, will be meeting with local businesses and event planners and managers in the coming week to discuss when and how businesses can further reopen and what the next few months could look like in the area.

The good news is that Sonoma County’s pandemic outlook continues to improve, along with other Bay Area counties.

After seven months, the county moved earlier in March from the most restrictive part of the state’s four-part reopening plan to the next step, the red tier — indicating substantial virus spread. Now the county is fast approaching benchmarks required to advance to the even less restrictive orange tier, reserved for counties with moderate transmission. San Francisco, Marin and Santa Clara counties entered the orange stage last week, allowing bars, restaurants and gyms to more fully reopen and expand operations. Napa County will move to the orange tier this week.

Insight: Life After The Pandemic

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This debut edition, publishing in print on March 28, is focused on stories examining how our lives will be different after the pandemic abates. Look for the next Insight section in late June.

Read all the stories here.

Fearful after bout with virus

Having endured full body blows from the highly contagious coronavirus, Victor Arreola of Healdsburg said he’s in no hurry to return to normal unless it’s safe.

Arreola, a 56-year-old vineyard manager, said the memory of how the virus sickened his entire family last summer, including his wife and three children, is still fresh in his mind.

The entire family has been vaccinated, but hasn’t dropped precautions against the infectious disease. They still don’t go to church on Sunday or gather with other families. They only recently started going to restaurants to eat outside, he said.

“We’re all vaccinated, but we’ll continue to wear masks,” Arreola said, speaking in Spanish. “When we gather, it’s just my family and two other friends who have also been vaccinated. ... Nothing is going to change until we feel that everyone is vaccinated, or maybe 80% of the people.”

Also, Arreola hasn’t allowed his family members in Mexico to come visit until they get vaccinated. The vaccine rollout there has been hampered by delays and inadequate supplies, prompting complaints that wealthy countries are hoarding vaccine doses.

“We do miss a lot of things,” he said. “This year and last year we canceled all family vacations. What we try to do now is create enjoyable routines in the house, with my children and the two friends. We play cards or do puzzles or watch TV and make barbecues in the yard.”

After his battle with the virus last summer, Arreola said he’s fearful of a complete shift to normalcy in the county. But he takes consolation in knowing he and his family are vaccinated.

Push for herd immunity

Arreola’s dream of herd immunity — when 75% to 85% of the community is immune to the pandemic disease — is still hard to pinpoint and depends largely on the pace of vaccinations.

Mase, the county health officer, said that broad immunity in the community could be possible by the end of this summer, if the expected vaccine supply escalation can meet consumer demand for shots. But even then, virus variants could require periodic booster shots.

Sonoma County and California continue making slow weekly progress with inoculations, despite tight supplies of vaccine doses. About 269,000 vaccinations have been administered in the county, but only 24% of the local population of 490,000 people are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that with much larger shipments of vaccines coming to California in the next few weeks, anyone 16 and older will be eligible for a coronavirus shot by April 15. The vaccines have not been approved for those under 16.

Newsom said anyone age 50 and over would be eligible for inoculations in a week. The pending moves come as the state expects to receive 2.5 million vaccine doses a week in the first half of April and more than 3 million a week in the second half, a big increase from the roughly 1.8 million doses a week the state now receives. Thus far, California has given more than 15 million vaccinations to its 40 million residents.

With vaccinations increasing, Hopkins pointed to another indicator that residents’ pandemic fears are easing. People are starting to contact her office with noncoronavirus-related concerns, such as county permit issues and pothole complaints.

“We’re starting to get more normal government complaints. ... It’s like a blessing,” she said. “It’s kind of crazy to say how wonderful it is to receive common complaints, but that almost feels good.”

Keep a mask handy

Riley, the UC Berkeley infectious disease expert, said there are lessons to be learned from the pandemic experiences in other countries. China now has the virus under control, while in Brazil coronavirus transmission is actually getting worse.

“In China, yes they’ve managed to keep the pandemic in check, but they know that this is still not over and at any time new transmissions can be introduced,” he said. “Even in countries where they’ve been able to control the epidemic, they need to be vigilant. ... Things are just not going to go back to the way it was.”

The rocky vaccine rollout in the United States has gained steady momentum and week by week brings the country a little closer to its goal of herd immunity, when the large majority of the population is inoculated against COVID-19.

That’s when “we can begin to ... gradually get back to somewhere close to the pre-pandemic period, but never completely,” Riley said.

President Joe Biden on Thursday raised his vaccination goal from 100 million doses administered to 200 million in the first 100 days of his presidency, which will be April 25. When he took office on Jan. 20, only 17.2 million shots had been given across the country. Now, daily vaccinations nationwide have surpassed 2.5 million.

Riley, who has for years studied infectious diseases in India and Brazil, said residents in those and other countries are used to infectious disease outbreaks. In China, where flu epidemics are common, people are always vigilant and ready to deploy masks and adhere to public health measures.

South Korea, he said, gained similar experience in 2012, during the outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS. Last year, when the new coronavirus hit, South Koreans were ready, he said.

“Right now this is our lesson,” Riley said, of the new coronavirus that since March 2020 has killed 308 Sonoma County residents and infected more than 29,000 locals. “Whether we actually learn our lesson, I’m not sure. Because a substantial proportion of people here and abroad, in places like Europe and Brazil, still don’t believe that this is (really) happening.”

Doreen Van Leeuwen, a Santa Rosa marriage and family therapist who specializes in disaster mental health issues, said many of the clients she’s been seeing have begun doing the work to confront fears and anxieties and regain a positive outlook as they navigate the long pandemic.

She said the same sense of community and “commitment to each other” that local residents tap into during wildfire season also can help cope with the pandemic.

“Our worst enemy is not the virus,” Van Leeuwen said. “Our worst enemy is our fear. It’s our fear that shuts us down. It’s what makes us angry. ... We become suspicious, we lose trust and to some degree, I think we all feel lost.”

Van Leeuwen said Americans don’t yet have a road map for going forward.

“We’re not out of the woods, maybe there will be more pandemics. How do we face that?” she said. “The more we can embrace the reality that is, and kind of run with it — not just sort of tolerate it, but say yes to it — the better off we are in terms of coping.”

Century-old pandemic lessons

During the 1918 flu pandemic, Americans also grew weary of strict public health rules like bans on gathering, mandatory face coverings and business closures, so they let their guard down, said Alexander Navarro, assistant director for the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.

Navarro recently published an article about the similarities between people’s responses today to COVID-19 restrictions and those during the 1918 pandemic. History, though not a perfect template, can teach valuable lessons, he said.

The success of public health measures in reducing new infections and deaths by late autumn 103 years ago was followed by millions of Americans clamoring to return to their normal routines. Those who didn’t lose a loved one or who were not still battling the flu, eagerly resumed family gatherings, ballroom dancing, classroom instruction, sporting events and religious services.

“By and large, people rushed to return to normalcy and the pandemic continued on, and we've seen that today,” Navarro said. “This is going to last a lot longer, even though we can’t predict exactly how long. And we’ve seen it over the past year. Every time that there’s been a relaxation of (public health) measures, we’ve seen another (COVID-19) surge.”

‘Wait-and-see scenario’

Ryan Parker, owner of CrossFit NorthGate in downtown Santa Rosa, said he hopes local residents can keep the virus at bay with responsible personal behavior. Parker’s 8-year-old business suffered serious setbacks in the past year, but it also became more resilient by adapting.

“This is a very much wait-and-see scenario,” he said. “Adaptability and resiliency are probably the most important traits we can have as businesspeople.”

When the county’s gradual progress curtailing COVID-19 transmission finally enabled recent advancement from the state’s purple reopening tier to the red stage, it allowed Parker to welcome back members to train indoors at 10% of his training space.

When the county moves to the next reopening stage, the orange tier, that would allow gyms like Parker’s to expand to 25% capacity inside. Through the ongoing pandemic, CrossFit has greatly expanded outdoor training, and that will continue.

“I would love to be back to my pre-COVID numbers,” Parker said. “I’m hopeful that despite the restrictions, we can continue to grow the business.”

When it comes to predictions about the coronavirus beyond the next three to six months, Dr. Michael Vollmer, a regional infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist for Kaiser Permanente, urged caution and stressed the unpredictability of the highly contagious respiratory disease. There have been several times in the past year, he said, when it looked like the worst of the pandemic in the area was behind us — then COVID-19 infections surged again within weeks.

Vollmer said it would be more prudent for North Bay communities to delay further reopening of businesses and public venues, until more people are vaccinated.

“I know it’s not what people want to hear,” he said. “They want to hear that we’re opening up. ... All of that is great but with spring break, with over a million people traveling every day, ... I continue to have high concerns and really want to message that we are not over this.”

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

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