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Sonoma State University to provide at least 580 beds for local coronavirus surge

For the next two months, and possibly into the fall, Sonoma State University is handing over parts of its recreation center and several campus dormitories to house hundreds of people sickened by the coronavirus, a new role that positions the 59-year-old Rohnert Park campus as a second front in Sonoma County’s fight against the global pandemic.

The university has agreed to provide at least 580 beds - and more than 700, if needed - for up to five months to handle patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms and others in isolation protocols. In the deal reached this week with the California State University system, the county will pay as much as $5 million to lease the campus space as an outlet to help meet the projected surge of local patients expected next month.

“By entering into this agreement, Sonoma State is meeting its civic as well as moral obligations to do all that we can to assist in the global effort to slow the spread of this deadly pathogen and to address the needs of our community,” SSU President Judy Sakaki said in a prepared statement.

The campus transformation could begin as soon as Thursday, and county officials say there’s no time to spare in the wake of new modeling data that shows more than 1,500 Sonoma County residents could simultaneously require hospitalization for coronavirus when infections peak near the start of June. The county had 123 cases Wednesday, including 20 people that were hospitalized.

“We do not want to be in the position of other jurisdictions throughout the country - notably New York - in terms of not having built out capacity,” said Barbie Robinson, the county’s health services director.

The contract, finalized late Tuesday after two weeks of negotiations, delineates space on campus for people awaiting test results or patients who have mild symptoms of coronavirus, which is known to cause the respiratory disease COVID-19. Another area of campus housing will be used to stage hospital patients who may be at greater risk of severe complications from the coronavirus, including those over the age of 65 and those with underlying medical conditions.

The extra bed space represents an 84% increase over countywide hospital capacity, which is currently 689 beds, including 76 ?intensive care beds, according to the county. Hospitals plan to add at least 227 more rooms, including 64 ICU beds.

“This is a historic, all-hands-on-deck effort to expand our hospital capacity across this state and here at home in Sonoma County. Opening up these over 500 beds will be a huge boost to expanding our local surge capacity. We are truly grateful for the one hundred percent partnership between Sonoma State University and the County of Sonoma-we know there’s much more work ahead,” Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said in a news release.

Over the past two weeks, Sonoma State was the sole focus of county negotiations for an alternative care site. The college has about 9,000 students, many of whom live in campus apartments. But the end of in-person instruction last month largely emptied that housing, with classes not set to resume on campus until the next academic year, which typically begins in August.

University spokesman Paul Gullixson said there are fewer than 100 students remaining on campus, adding that the number will likely dwindle to fewer than 50 once more students take advantage of housing refunds that have been offered. The remaining students will be isolated from the care sites, according to SSU officials.

Gymnasiums in the campus recreation center will host up to 206 patients who test positive for COVID-19 but display mild to moderate symptoms, while parts of Verdot Village, Sauvignon Village and Cooperage - campus housing near the university police station on the southwest side of the college - will serve to isolate and quarantine for people awaiting test results or at-risk patients, according to the contract.

County officials have yet to finalize logistical questions such as the campus’s intake or screening process, and it’s unclear whether patients would be transferred to the campus from area hospitals or simply move in directly.

Rooms will also be set aside for health care staff who choose not to go home in an effort to prevent spreading the virus to family members.

Sonoma County is working to contract for 24-hour security service, transportation and food service for patients, Robinson said. Sonoma State will provide laundry service and meals, but not for patients, according to the contract.

A separate contract the county executed April 1 with Petaluma Health Center taps that nonprofit agency with overseeing care at SSU. There is no dollar figure associated with that contract, but the county has agreed to reimburse all costs incurred by the agency after patients’ insurance providers are billed.

The county’s $5 million agreement with SSU includes a provision that would allow it to cancel the deal and shut down the care site should it interfere with the university’s educational mission.

The initial agreement lasts until June 6, but can be extended another 90 days in three, 30-day installments if both sides agree. It requires Sonoma County to conduct extensive cleaning afterward, including “sanitation of the entire geographically contiguous area.”

“We believe this is a fair agreement that achieves the county’s needs while protecting the health and safety of those at Sonoma State,” Sakaki said in an emailed statement. “I’m pleased that we were able to partner with the county on this agreement.”

Sakaki, who declined to be interviewed Wednesday, did not immediately respond to questions about how the partnership may impact the university’s operations this summer or in the fall and how it had been received by the campus community, including SSU parents.

Typically, instruction resumes for the fall semester in mid-August. The full, five-month term of the contract lasts until Sept. 6.

It’s unclear when SSU will begin hosting patients or residents, but Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore previously confirmed the county has requested California National Guard to help set up the sites. The county will need to boost staffing levels with Petaluma Health, and is actively seeking more health care workers to help manage the SSU site.

“We’re grateful to Sonoma State for filling such an important role,” Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said in a news release. “Having alternate care sites will be crucial if our hospitals experience a surge in patients. We hope we won’t be in that situation, but it’s imperative we plan for it and have resources ready.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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