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Sonoma County surpasses 100 deaths related to the coronavirus pandemic

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Sonona County has surpassed 100 deaths as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a grim milestone reached Thursday when local health officials reported seven more fatalities.

The overwhelming majority of the 105 deaths have involved people 65 and older with underlying medical problems who live in senior care facilities — skilled nursing homes, assisted living centers and board and care homes. At least 84 of the victims were residents of area senior care homes.

The county’s pandemic death toll crossed the century mark in a little less than six months after the first fatality March 20. On June 30, a little less than three months later, there were only nine local residents who lost their lives to complications of COVID-19. However, virus-related deaths soared in July and August, as the highly contagious infectious disease spread throughout the county. By Aug. 31, county health officials had reported 80 fatalities, and now 25 more in just 10 days of September.

“This is a solemn moment,” county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Thursday. “It’s a milestone we never wanted to reach and our hearts go out to the families and to our community.”

The deadly landmark comes as the county continues struggling to control transmission of the virus, that so far has infected more than 6,500 residents since March. In particular, there are public health battles underway against large-scale infections of elderly residents at local senior care sites and a recent outbreak in the general surgery area at Sonoma County’s largest hospital.

In late August, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital revealed the outbreak that has infected 26 of its health care workers and as many as four patients. The 300-bed medical center employs about 2,000 people.

Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer at Memorial, said Thursday the hospital now has a “good handle” on managing the outbreak that emerged early last month.

Certain hospital workers have questioned and criticized how the hospital’s leaders have handled the worrisome virus infections among their colleagues plus a handful of patients.

Krilich insisted hospital officials did not withhold information about the outbreak from staff members and the community for most of August, although Memorial’s chief executive alerted the entire organization about the situation on Aug. 29.

Even though the initial Memorial employee infection was discovered in the first week of August, Krilich said it was too early then to “call it an outbreak.” In the middle of last month, it became clear ”that we had a cluster of cases among caregivers,” he said.

After that, before CEO Tyler Hedden’s alert to all employees, it took some time to gather necessary information about the virus cases and who was involved, and to quickly start to take actions to contain the outbreak, the chief medical officer said.

“It isn't a matter of keeping the public or employees in the dark,” Krilich said. “It's a matter of making sure that we are right, and then executing on a plan to keep operating a facility that provides exceptional care to our patients and keeps our caregivers safe.”

Allison Partington, who transports patients within the hospital, said Memorial’s management refused to give her a COVID-19 test even though she had contact with a patient who was diagnosed as positive for contracting the virus. That patient was in the general surgery unit, known as 1 Center, the location of the outbreak among staff.

Partington is a shop steward and member of the bargaining team for the National Union of Healthcare workers that represents 740 Memorial employees, including nursing assistants, radiologic technologists, respiratory therapists, housekeepers and dietary aides.

Also, Partington said the hospital did not do an adequate virus contact- tracing investigation in her situation, and has resisted testing health care workers not assigned to the general surgery area. Until July, this section of Memorial was used as the dedicated unit for treating COVID-19 patients.

A nurse, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing repercussions from hospital leaders, said he was among workers who frequently passed through the hospital’s general surgery area for most of last month without knowing about the staff outbreak there.

Related to the outbreak, Krilich said the hospital has thus far had 186 workers and more than 100 patients tested for COVID-19. He said the hospital continues to evaluate its virus testing capabilities and noted that he understood employees’ frustrations.

For now, Memorial’s leaders have prioritized testing workers with what Krilich called “significant exposure” to the virus, and they are getting tested at the hospital through its urgent care centers and the county public health laboratory.

Meanwhile, the seven latest county deaths included three women over age 64 who were residents of skilled nursing homes and died between Sept. 4 and Sept. 6 and two men over 64, one who lived in a residential care home and died Sept. 6 and one who died at home Sept. 4.

Also, two men between 55 and 64 who were not residents of senior care homes died at local hospitals on Sept. 5. and Sept. 7.

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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