Two new coronavirus cases reported Saturday in Sonoma County

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Public health officials on Saturday reported two new cases of the coronavirus are confirmed in Sonoma County, bringing total cases here to 24 people including a patient who died Friday.

County health officials would not release any demographic information about the new cases or the single death. They say they are still investigating where and how the two latest patients became infected with the virus that’s spread into a global pandemic.

It marked the end of a harrowing week in which local cases soared nearly fivefold, the county took sweeping action to try to curtail further spread of COVID-19 and to secure additional hospital space in case the number of people stricken explodes in the coming weeks. Before last Saturday when county officials confirmed the first case here in which a person contracted the virus from unknown local transmission, the three people hospitalized were infected during a pair of cruises to Japan and Mexico in January and February, respectively.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s interim health officer, said in an interview Saturday the rising number of people confirmed to have the virus was not surprising given the potential for it to spread in the community. But public health emergency measures, such as her unprecedented three-week order effective last Wednesday for people countywide to largely stay at home will help keep the infection rate from increasing exponentially, she said.

Practically, her directive mostly shut down county commerce other than businesses deemed essential and allows people to run errands like food shopping and to go outside for fresh air and to walk the dog. She urged people to stay close to home and keep a safe social distance of at least 6 feet from others.

“Everyone in Sonoma County is feeling the somber reality of losing one of our own with coronavirus, and we’re starting to see how quickly this could spread locally if we let it go unchecked,” Mase said. “We’re in a good place. We started to limit the spread by only leaving our homes for essential activities right after seeing that the virus was in our community.”

On Thursday, she suggested that 20% to 40% of residents in the county, which has a population of more than 500,000 could ultimately contract the virus.

New details emerged Saturday about the first local resident who died Friday afternoon at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital from coronavirus-related conditions. The deceased is an elderly man with underlying health problems who recently went on a cruise, said a Sutter hospital source who requested anonymity.

Mase said she would begin releasing demographic information about local cases when the number of positive COVID-19 patients in the county reaches roughly 50, a number making it harder to identify patients.

The two new cases emerged as local testing ramped up and test results rose sharply. However, there are many reports of county residents claiming they’ve been unable to get tested for their flu-like symptoms. Local health officials have repeatedly urged sick people to call their doctors to report symptoms so it can be determined who should get priority for testing.

As of late Saturday, the county public health laboratory had conducted 464 coronavirus tests. Of these, 415 have come back negative and the results of 25 tests are still pending.

Officials have not yet determined the origins of 11 of the 24 positive cases of the coronavirus, according to the latest county public health data. Officials said five of the patients were infected by community transmission from an unknown source, another five people’s cases are related to travel and three were due to close contact with someone who was infected.

Mase said testing is being conducted by the county public health lab, commercial laboratories such as LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics and Kaiser Permanente. It’s unclear how many total tests are being conducted by commercial labs because so far they are only required to report positive tests. She said a significant portion of the local testing is now being done by commercial labs.

Though the county lab has the potiential to process between 100 and 120 coronavirus tests a day, it is only processing 30 to 40 patient specimens daily. Mase said the county labor is working below its capacity because local health investigators are focusing on “priority cases.” That includes: people with severe COVID-19-type symptoms; those who have a high likelihood of being infected with the new virus; and people who have come in contact with others who already tested positive.

The county is also testing health care workers, first responders and people in congregate settings, such as skilled nursing centers and the local jail, Mase said.

She said the county’s enhanced surveillance testing project conducted last weekend showed the coronavirus virus was indeed circulating in the community. Three cases of community transmission were found out of some 80 tests conducted during that project, officials said.

Meanwhile, county health care workers continue to sound alarms with claims hospitals do not have enough personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks, to safeguard them.

One front-line health care worker at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center said Saturday hospital officials are denying them use of the masks, instead giving them surgical masks.

The worker, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared retribution, said the local Kaiser hospital, is caring for roughly six “enhanced respiratory” patients whose coronavirus tests are pending.

“Front-line clinicians are being reprimanded for either wearing their own N95 masks or asking for an N95 mask when taking care of a probable COVID-19 patient,” she said.

She said hospital officials are stockpiling the masks in the event the hospital is besieged with a surge of patients. Local Kaiser officials rejected that claim.

Kaiser said in a statement its top priority is the safety of its patients and staff and it is providing staff with protective equipment that is “aligned with the latest science and guidance from public health authorities.”

“These are the supplies and equipment that are being used by the major hospital systems in California and across the nation,” Kaiser said Saturday in the statement. “We understand this is a stressful time and we encourage staff to raise concerns, but to suggest we are not providing appropriate protections is inaccurate.”

Kaiser said it has enough protective gear for its staff and is not storing it, rather “appropriately managing our supply of (personal protective equipment) to ensure the medically appropriate protections remain available.”

But county health officials have reached out to the public for donations of masks and protective gear for health care workers. Donations can be made to the Salvation Army, 93 Stony Point Road, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The following items are needed: unused N95 masks with or without the valve; protective goggles in unopened original packaging; and unused hospital gowns in original packaging. Items are preferred in bulk quantities and only healthy people should be dropping off donations.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state had 10 million masks on hand to distribute. County health officials said they are coordinating requests through the county's emergency operations center for some of these masks, as well as virus testing swabs.

Mase, the county’s interim health officer, said the crucial thing now is for residents to cloister themselves as much as possible.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is to stay home whenever possible,” she said. “Sonoma County is a determined and strong community, so i know that if we all commit to limiting the spread we’re setting ourselves up for the best possible outcome.”

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