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Sonoma County health officials struggle to contain the coronavirus

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With record-setting rates of new COVID-19 infections, deaths and hospitalizations, Sonoma County residents are again facing weeks or even months of uncertainty, while local and state health officials struggle to gain the upper hand against the highly contagious virus by ordering another wave of business shutdowns.

In the last two weeks, the county reported 733 new cases, close to 40% of the tally since early March, and 11 of the 16 local fatalities attributed to complications of the new coronavirus. On Sunday alone, there were 116 new cases, the highest single-day total during the ongoing pandemic. Sixty-seven more cases were reported Monday, boosting the total to 1,886.

Those numbers mirror a statewide resurgence in that same period — with nearly 330,000 cases — causing Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue a surprise directive Monday shuttering hair salons, gyms, indoor malls and some offices, among other establishments, in addition to the anticipated halt of indoor eating and drinking at restaurants, wineries and breweries in Sonoma County and 31 other counties on the state’s watchlist of areas most struggling with transmission of the virus. Newsom also ordered all of California to close most bars. The sweeping restrictions, reminiscent of those earlier in the pandemic, are expected to remain in place at least three weeks.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Monday the local influx of infections has been driven by social gatherings, as well as continuing outbreaks at skilled nursing centers and other residential care facilities, large households in which people are infecting each other and workplace clusters.

“We're in a watch-and-wait mode right now to try to see what's going to happen to our case numbers,” Mase said during a press briefing. “Then, we'll have a much better idea of how long these restrictions need to be in place.”

Mase said it takes at least two weeks and more likely a month for testing and hospitalization data to indicate if the new closures are effective in slowing spread of the virus.

Last week as the county staggered toward the state’s watchlist where it officially landed Friday, she said the shutdowns mandated by state public health officials are aimed at high-risk indoor businesses prone to crowds and where there’s the greatest chance of community spread of the pathogen. That’s the most troublesome origin of the virus because there’s no way to pinpoint where it came from, unlike people who contract it from traveling to hot spot areas or from close contacts like family members or coworkers.

As of the weekend, the county had classified 205 cases, or 11% of the total, as the result of so-called community spread. However, there were 740 cases still under investigation, or 39% of the total. And last week Mase said it’s likely many of those will end up in the community spread category.

Of 1,886 known cases as of Sunday, the largest work group hit by the virus included people listing occupations waitstaff, clerical workers, salespeople, cashiers and others in services and sales accounting for 159 cases, according to county data. Among agricultural workers, 117 have tested positive for COVID-19, including outbreaks at at least two undisclosed wineries involving at least 17 workers. About 240 people stricken were retired or not looking for work or unemployed but seeking a job and 73 people work in the health care sector.

No information was released Monday revealing specific industries or companies where workers recently have been infected by COVID-19.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said precise information could help the county more adroitly stem further infections when they are coming from public places. Harder are the picnics, celebrations and funerals Rabbitt has been told are contributors to the uptick, he said.

“We can’t regulate the societal pieces like social gatherings that we think were part of the reason for some of the surge,” Rabbitt said. “Talking to Dr. Mase, she feels our numbers went up because of mass gatherings.”

The spike of infections has increased a backlog of case analysis on the desks of public health workers charged with identifying where people are contracting the virus and launching a public health response to try to curtail further spread.

Mase said she wants that data but her staff is simply unable to do more given their volume of work.

“There are a lot of cases to get through and a lot of data to analyze,” Mase said.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has risen significantly over the last week, with 27 confirmed and 9 suspected cases as of Saturday, the latest data available from the county.

Hospital officials say not all patients with COVID-19 have been admitted because of the virus. Hospitals are broadly testing patients who come in for a variety of reasons, and in some cases they are discovering unexpected positive cases when people are admitted for unrelated medical care.

Although hospitals leaders say they are ready in case there’s a flood of coronavirus patients at one time, they have expressed worry about the escalating local transmission rate of the disease with county officials and the need for an alternate care site in case they have to free up space in hospitals for the seriously ill.

Susan Gorin, chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said the county’s top hospital executives sought a private audience with her Monday to share their concerns.

“I was just on a Zoom call with hospital executives scared to death that we are not going to have the surge capacity we need,” Gorin said, referring to her conversation with executives from Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital and Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. “They want to ensure the county is expeditiously working to set up an alternate care site.”

The hospital leaders said work is underway this week to increase capacity to staff more beds at the local medical centers if they need them for patients sick with the virus.

“Given what is happening around us, they are taking steps to increase capacity urgently this week,” Gorin said. “They would like the same level of urgency from the board of supervisors” to come up with another place for off-site medical care since the county can no longer use space at Sonoma State University “so they can focus on the more serious cases of COVID that they’re seeing.”

Staff Writer Tyler Silvy contributed to this story.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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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