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Unvaccinated Sonoma County first responders must begin weekly COVID-19 testing

As of Friday morning, all unvaccinated first responders in Sonoma County will now be required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The deadline by which the region’s police and fire departments were to have a mandatory screening program in place was scheduled to end at that time.

In early August, Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, issued a directive requiring all first responders to either show proof of their vaccination or have routine surveillance testing for the coronavirus.

Her order was initially set to take effect Sept. 1, but was delayed to Sept. 24 to give the agencies time to secure testing arrangements.

That order followed a July mandate from the California Department of Public Health that required employers of high-risk health care and congregate settings to verify vaccinations and submit to regular COVID-19 screening.

Believing the state’s mandate “is not sufficient enough to protect our community” from the delta variant of the coronavirus, Mase said all workers with law enforcement, fire departments, emergency medical services and temporary disaster shelters must be vaccinated or tested.

The requirements were intended to strongly encourage first responders to get shots to protect themselves against the highly contagious virus.

While enforcement of the order is the responsibility of each agency, the county public health division will help track testing numbers.

“We don’t have the numbers yet, but we are working on surveying first responder agencies to get the data,” public health spokesperson Matt Brown said in an email.

Some agencies began weekly testing before Friday’s deadline.

Another mandate from August required 4,400 county workers, including Sheriff’s Office employees, to get vaccinated or be tested weekly. The Sheriff’s Office began the program Aug. 23, according to agency spokesperson Sgt. Juan Valencia.

Of the office’s 569 employees, 73% had been vaccinated by Thursday, Valencia said. Others can get the nasal swab for a PCR test at several testing sites across the county, and the test kits are collected four days a week.

“The Sheriff’s Office is notified if an employee has not tested. We contact the employee to see why they did not test. The employee will be disciplined if they refuse to test or submit proof of vaccination,” Valencia wrote in an email.

He could not provide the number of swabs that have come back positive for COVID-19 since the program began last month.

The Sebastopol Police Department, which had a vaccination rate of 97% by Thursday, started testing unvaccinated employees three weeks ago, said Police Chief Kevin Kilgore.

The department’s staff is comprised of 26 people, including full-time, part-time and volunteer workers. According to the data, one employee remains unvaccinated.

The Santa Rosa Police Department’s vaccination rate hovers around 69%, according to the agency’s Administrative Services Officer Pam Lorence. This is lower than the county’s overall vaccination rate of 76%.

Santa Rosa and other local police agencies did not immediately respond Thursday to questions about the implementation of the county’s health order within their first-responder agencies.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 602-736-5270 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

Emily Wilder

Criminal justice and public safety, The Press Democrat  

Criminal justice is one of the most stirring and consequential systems, both in the North Bay and nationwide. Crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration have ripples that reach many parts of our lives, and these issues are under increasingly powerful microscopes. My goal is to uncover untold stories and understand the unique impacts of criminal justice and public safety on Sonoma County.

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