Sonoma County residents yearn for freer routines as pandemic slowly subsides
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.