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Sonoma County refuses to switch to controversial new CDC coronavirus testing guidelines

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Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Wednesday she will not follow new federal coronavirus testing guidelines that limit the number of people tested for the virus by excluding those who show no symptoms even if they’ve come in close contact with an infected person.

The controversial new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reportedly the result of pressure from Trump administration officials. The CDC guidance was denounced by public health experts who say it could prompt further spread of the infectious disease. Trump has repeatedly made it clear he thinks there is too much testing in the United States, making the country look bad when comparing COVID-19 infections and deaths to other nations.

During a press briefing, Mase defended the county’s practice of testing anyone who has come in close contact with a resident afflicted by the virus and said it would not be changed. Numerous COVID-19 infections have been identified through the county’s contact tracing program of testing people with or without symptoms of the virus, she said.

“The state of California has advised us at this time to continue what we’re doing in terms of testing,” Mase said. “So we will continue to perform contact tracing and test all contacts — whether asymptomatic or symptomatic — for COVID-19.”

The local health officer’s comments came during a joint press briefing on the status of the pandemic and the LNU Lightning Complex fires, including the Walbridge fire still burning in rural parts of Sonoma County. U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who participated in the briefing, said the new CDC testing guidelines are politically motivated.

“As you know, the CDC is under tremendous pressure from this president to do less testing so that we find less cases of COVID,” Huffman said.

The congressman suggested the president hopes to improve U.S. pandemic statistics in the lead up to the November election.

“I'm really gratified that our local public health leaders are smart enough and professional enough to listen to the science,” he said. “Here in California, we're going to do it right.”

The CDC’s turnabout came Monday on its website with guidance that stated people without coronavirus symptoms “do not necessarily need a test unless you are a vulnerable individual or your health care provider or state or local public health officials recommend you take one.” However, the CDC guidance still included the warning that asymptomatic virus carriers can in fact spread COVID-19.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, local public health officials released information regarding the latest COVID-19 deaths, three reported Monday and Tuesday. The fatalities boost the county’s pandemic death toll to 75 since the virus emerged in March, with 60 of the victims residents of either skilled nursing centers or residential care sites such as assisted living or board and care homes.

All three of the latest victims were over 64, had underlying health conditions and were hospitalized before they died.

A female skilled nursing home resident died Aug. 11 and a male nursing home resident died Aug. 20. Also, a woman who was not a resident of a senior care home died Aug. 19.

Because of its rampant COVID-19 transmission, Sonoma County remains on the state’s monitoring list of counties struggling most to control the spread of the virus. The area has been under monitoring for six weeks, and there’s no telling how much longer before there’s sufficient progress to warrant removal from the watchlist.

Mase acknowledged Wednesday that other Bay Area counties are in a better position as far as keeping the virus in check. One of them is neighboring Napa County that Friday became the first area locale to come out from under state monitoring.

Asked about this contrast at the press briefing, Mase said Napa County has a “very different population and demographics” than Sonoma County, which continues to experience COVID-19 outbreaks in senior care homes and among farmworkers, large households of extended families and workplaces.

Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the Napa County emergency operation center, credited Napa’s ability to gain the upper hand on the virus to strict adherence to state-mandated closures by local residents and businesses.

However, Upton said Napa County, with only about 140,000 residents, has a much smaller population than Sonoma County and other Bay Area counties. She described the county as a “suburban-rural-agrarian” community.

Santa Rosa alone has a larger population than all of Napa County, she said.

If Napa County can remain off the state’s watchlist for another week, for a total of 14 days, local officials can begin to consider ways to safely reopen businesses and public venues such as museums, personal care services firms, entertainment centers, as well as restart indoor food and drinking service at restaurants.

Upton also said public school leaders could begin planning for the eventual resumption of classroom teaching. But she stressed that and other elements of recovery during the ongoing pandemic will not happen overnight.

“It doesn’t mean the pandemic is over,” Upton said.

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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