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Sonoma County health officer orders residents to wear face coverings

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After seeing people were not adhering to her recommendation two weeks ago, Sonoma County’s top public health official on Monday made clear everyone must wear a face covering starting Friday when they go inside any building other than home, or when outside if unable to remain at least six feet away from others.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said residents can use a scarf or bandanna to cover their faces. She urged people not to buy N95 respirator or surgical masks, because health care workers are “in dire need for” them.

“These facial coverings are meant to protect the public from you,” Mase said during a live Facebook video briefing. “You’re not protecting yourself from coronavirus. What you’re doing is ensuring that if you had coronavirus but you are asymptomatic, you’re not giving it to other people.”

Meanwhile, the health officer acknowledged growing concern over the devastating economic effects of her public health emergency measures to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Mase said she would reevaluate her unprecedented shelter- in-place directive effective March 18 in the coming weeks if the number of local cases don’t surge. As it stands now, that order runs through May 3.

As the leader of the local battle against the infectious disease which has claimed two lives and stricken 152 people in Sonoma County, Mase said area businesses, medical professionals and some residents have expressed concerns to her about the ramifications of her actions, which essentially have halted most business and industry plus upended daily public life. Over the past month, area companies have furloughed thousands of workers.

“There‘s a reason for us to pause and observe and see what happens with our cases in the next couple of weeks, and we are in discussions with different stakeholders about slowly attempting to loosen some of the restrictions in a systematic way,” Mase said.

She called it “heartening” to see the number of confirmed local cases of COVID-19 is not growing exponentially, like some other parts of the state. Preliminary computer modeling of projections for the local outbreak indicated the local home-isolation order would reduce by half the number of people confirmed to have the virus would infect, but Mase said it’s possible her directive has reduced that number even more.

The county health officer’s first substantial remarks about eventually loosening or lifting her public health emergency order came on the same day Gov. Gavin Newsom said he and governors of Washington and Oregon would take a “shared approach” to reopening public life and businesses in their respective states. Newsom said he will release a detailed plan on Tuesday for incrementally lifting coronavirus-related restrictions. The plan will be based on science and the health of California residents, the governor said.

President Trump clashed Monday with West Coast and East Coast governors over who has the final say regarding states’ shelter-in-place orders. Mase said actually local health officials will make the final decisions.

Asked if she had the authority, for example, to continue her stay-home order even if Newsom lifted the statewide directive, Mase said: “Yeah, absolutely,” noting she issued her order before the governor handed down a statewide shelter order.

Speaking hypothetically, Jennifer Larocque, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Health Services, said the county could ease the stay-home rule by allowing people with face coverings to go to any parks in the county. Public health workers then could track whether that causes an increase in COVID-19 cases among people going to parks.

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Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

“It’s a very fluid situation,” Larocque said of the county’s existing public health emergency restrictions to try to curtail the virus which has caused a global pandemic.

Mendocino County’s health officer last week eased some of the restrictions there, including allowing residents to walk or bike through parks close to their homes. That county only has four reported cases of the virus.

As of Monday night, Sonoma County had 81 active among the overall 152 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, since the first local infected person emerged on March 2. There are 69 people who recovered.

The county reported five new confirmed cases and 8 more recoveries in the 24-hour period ending Monday night. A total of 3,768 COVID-19 diagnostic tests have been conducted locally, with 3,616 or 96% coming back negative.

Still, Mase said it’s “really hard to predict” how the virus will spread in the coming weeks. A possible surge in Sonoma County is likely about six weeks away, according to the first batch of local case projection modeling done for the county by Imperial College London. The modeling showed that when the county reaches its peak in late May or early June, 1,500 residents could require hospital care.

“It is heartening that we don’t have the numbers, potentially, that we had expected,” the health officer said. “However, we’re kind of early in the whole situation. And as you know, flattening the curve is just that — flattening the curve so that we don’t hit that surge all of a sudden. But we’re still gonna see cases over time.”

Area health care providers have said reducing the potential surge of COVID-19 cases will keep local hospitals and medical clinics from being overwhelmed, allowing greater care and treatment to be devoted to the most severe cases, which in turn will save more lives.

On another front to tamp down the infectious disease, county health officials are targeting communities and institutions particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as skilled nursing centers, the homeless population and the county jail.

The county has launched an enhanced surveillance testing program to seek out virus cases at skilled nursing centers. That recently was instrumental in identifying a staff member at a Sebastopol facility who had been infected with the virus but wasn’t showing any symptoms.

County officials also conducted surveillance testing on several groups of homeless individuals, and are hoping to do the same at the Sonoma County Jail by the end of the week.

“The good thing is we don’t have any cases that we know of in the jail right now,” Mase said.

Meanwhile, county residents who defy her face-covering requirement could be charged with a misdemeanor, face a fine or both, officials said. As with other local public health orders, this directive stands until it’s rescinded.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” Mase said during the Facebook briefing. “I know this is hard for everybody, and it feels strange, but we have here in Sonoma County pulled through tough times before and emerged stronger. We know we can do this together, but we can’t do it without your help.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee. You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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