Sonoma County supervisors unanimously approve $16 million public health strategy to fight coronavirus
Rocio Bermudez, a dance instructor who lives in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood, has not worked since March. Like many other Sonoma County residents, Bermudez, 50, and her family have mostly stayed home during the pandemic.
But she’s seen a lot of people gathering in her neighborhood, at local parks, on basketball courts and for parties.
“A lot of us are taking precautions, but some in our community are not,” Bermudez said Tuesday afternoon, shortly after she and her daughter were tested for the coronavirus at Andy’s Unity Park in southwest Santa Rosa.
About 90 people came for tests at the neighborhood event. Similar free testing will be available this week in Healdsburg, Rohnert Park and again in Santa Rosa.
The expanded and targeted neighborhood testing represents a key part of an enhanced coronavirus response strategy county officials launched this week. The $16 million long-term effort is aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19 by focusing public health efforts on disadvantaged neighborhoods that have been hit hardest by the contagion.
The broad plan also includes giving $30 gift cards to induce people to get tested and granting $1,216 one-time stipends and hotel vouchers to residents who contract the virus but have difficulty isolating at home. Due to state public health rules, the county’s ability to further reopen the local economy depends on reducing daily virus infections equitably in poor communities as well as privileged areas.
Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved using $4 million in local COVID-19 emergency funds to execute the enhanced pandemic response plan until the end of the year. Health officials are expected to go back to the supervisors for another nearly $12 million to pay for the continued battle against the virus through June 30, 2021.
“This approach that we’re putting into place is going to impact us positively,” county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said. “It is, initially, probably going to find a few more cases. That’s what we want to do. … I’m very optimistic and hopeful that we will be seeing some good outcomes from this work very soon.”
Supervisors welcomed the beefed-up and aggressive public health tactics to help get a handle on curbing virus transmission, so the county will be able to eventually ease more restrictions on businesses and restart more commercial activities.
Saddled by high infection rates, Sonoma County has been stuck since late August in the most restrictive of the state’s color-coded, four-stage reopening plan — even as the other eight Bay Area counties continue to advance to less restrictive stages that allow them to widely restart and expand business operations and public venues.
San Francisco on Tuesday became the first large metropolitan county in California to progress into the least restrictive yellow tier, paving the way for many businesses like restaurants to resume indoor operations at 50% capacity. Also, Napa County now joins Santa Clara and Alameda counties, which are in the second least restrictive orange tier. The state assesses COVID-19 public health metrics among the 58 counties, and progress or lack of it, every Tuesday.
As expected, Sonoma County didn’t qualify under state guidelines for advancement this week. The county’s daily infection rate of 11.9 new virus cases per 100,000 residents far exceeds the maximum of 7 new cases per 100,000 to move ahead with more business operations. The county performs better on the other two state benchmarks, test positivity percentage and its new health equity metric measuring the percentage of positive COVID-19 positive tests in disadvantaged communities, but it must meet all three metrics to advance to the next reopening stage.
“We don’t want to slip back. We all feel the angst of the community to be in this place,” supervisor David Rabbitt said, of the county mired in the bottom of the state’s reopening process.
Back at the neighborhood testing in Andy’s Unity Park, local residents lined up and waited about 15 minutes to be checked. Some came alone, while others brought entire families.
Julianne Ballard, a county supervising public health nurse, handed out $30 dollar gift cards to the adults before they walked to the testing station to have a long swab placed up their noses. Children were screened with a less invasive nasal swab.
Victor, a southwest Santa Rosa resident who asked that only his first name be used, brought his wife and children to be tested. He received a phone call on Monday from a friend he had recently visited that had come in close contact with somone who had tested positive for the virus.
“I didn’t see him long, it was just a hi and bye situation, but I just wanted to make sure,” he said, explaining why he wanted to be screened for COVID-19.
Rachel Horton, 28, of Santa Rosa, came for a test because she’s planning a trip outside the county to visit family. Horton works in agriculture and said her employer enforces public health rules for employees to wear masks and keep their proper physical distance.
“It’s just for peace of mind and making sure I’m not one of the ones not showing symptoms and spreading it,” she said.
As far as the county’s slow progress containing the virus that has become frustrating for many residents and businesses, Susan Gorin, chair of the county supervisors, called for patience.
“We are definitely not in a sprint,” Gorin said. “This is a very long marathon, and we have more laps to do.”
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @pressreno.