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2 California counties tackle coronavirus differently but have similar outcomes

Sonoma and Solano, the North Bay’s two largest counties, are comparable in population.

But they have taken notably different paths toward dealing with the now 2-year-old coronavirus pandemic.

Sonoma has more residents than Solano — 494,000 to 440,000, respectively — but Solano is denser than Sonoma — 503 people per square mile in Solano, compared with 307 per square mile in Sonoma, according to California and U.S. Census Bureau data.

In trying to slow the virus behind COVID-19's ailments, Sonoma has been among the California counties with the most proactive public health measures since March 2020. At times, the county even went beyond similarly acting counties and cities at times.

“If at times Sonoma County had more restrictive health orders, it was warranted because of conditions in Sonoma County, including case rate, death rate, hospitalizations, etc.,” county spokesperson Matt Brown wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, Solano County has resisted measures such as curtailing operations for certain types of businesses and mandating masks indoors. But in July 2020, the state stepped in with its own levels of restrictions for all counties, based on how they achieved metrics such as cases and hospitalizations.

Solano in early 2020 encountered the first cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. That March, county public health officer Dr. Bela Matyas raised eyebrows around the state when he released a video statement that the county wouldn’t be pursuing shelter-at-home orders like other Bay Area counties, and the county shortly thereafter put into place protocols for separating workers with physical and other barriers based on low-, medium- and high-risk of transmission.

“I argued that containment was impossible, and we should focus on mitigation,” Matyas told the Business Journal. He came to that conclusion from his 35 years in public health, including work through a half-dozen large pandemics, and patterns found in how respiratory contagions go pandemic.

Though the two counties have tackled the virus differently, their outcomes in key statistics so far have been on par with each other.

Sonoma had 83,178 positive cases, and Solano just over 84,079, according to their online data dashboards () as of March 17. Here’s what that looks like when population differences are equalized: 16,700 cases per 100,000 residents for Sonoma and 17,000 per 100,000 for Solano.

But in one heartbreaking toll of the pandemic — how many people have died — Solano has fared better than Sonoma.

As of March 17, Sonoma County had suffered 481 COVID-19 deaths; and Solano County, 409. That stark metric works out to 95 deaths per 100,000 residents for Sonoma and 91 per 100,000 for Solano.

Another key difference between the counties, despite similar population sizes, is demographics. And that’s been a focus for epidemiologists and public health officials who have become concerned about how COVID-19 affects certain age and ethnic groups.

Sonoma County’s population skews older, wealthier, more white and less conservative than Solano County’s.

“Those four parameters — race, age, wealth and political leanings — have big impacts on feelings on vaccination and what to do — restriction versus nonrestriction,” Matyas said. “Solano is much more similar to the Central Valley on how the community approached the pandemic, compared to Sonoma and the Bay Area.”

That’s reflected in the roughly 80% of the population who are fully vaccinated in Sonoma County, compared with 72% in Solano.

“It’s not surprising,” Matyas said. “Younger and non-white/Asian and conservative and poorer are more likely not to be vaccinated.”

Sonoma has a median age of 42.1, compared with Solano’s 36.2. Whites make up nearly 63% of Sonoma’s residents, compared with 39% in Solano. The proportion who are Hispanic is roughly equal between Solano and Sonoma (26% and 27%, respectively), and Blacks and Asians each make up 14% of Solano but just 1.3% and 4.1%, respectively, in Sonoma.

“Sonoma County has different demographics than those of our neighbors, so we did not always follow the same health orders that other counties in the region did,” Brown wrote.

As an example, amid the omicron variant spike in cases, particular impact among Latinos was cited as a reason for Sonoma County’s public health officer, Dr. Sundari Mase, in late January to issue an order to ban large public events for 30 days. That came at a time when other California counties and cities were starting to relax their coronavirus restrictions.

The move also stirred pointed criticism during a virtual Board of Supervisors meeting particularly related to business events and school sporting events. Even North Bay Business Journal had to significantly adjust its largest annual event, its annual Book of Lists party, because of the county order.

Peter Rumble, CEO of Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, one of the speakers at the virtual board hearing, told the Business Journal that the local hospitality industry, one of the county’s largest employers and hard hit during the pandemic, is seeing “signs of hope and light and positivity” but hasn’t yet returned to pre-COVID levels of booked room nights and average daily rates but is gradually getting there.

“It’s been hard here,” Rumble said. “There have been more restrictions on business activity in Sonoma County than in other places in the state. California as a state was very slow on issuing guidance for large-scale events. That did not help.”

California went through several iterations of its public health directives starting in spring 2020 with a county-directed version, then shifting to state-directed movement that July, and color-coded tiers instituted in August 2020. It was replaced by the SMARTER plan in February of this year as state officials noted COVID-19 was moving toward being endemic.

In Solano County, hospitality also has been hit hard by the pandemic, while the transportation and warehousing sector has been booming with trucking jobs and construction of large warehouses to fill demand for e-commerce, according to Sean Quinn, project manager for Solano Economic Development Corporation.

“Hotels were not hit in Solano as hard as in other areas of the state,” Quinn said. “What has not come back are conference activities, but traveling visitors and business travelers are starting to come back.

Solano’s focus from the beginning was to turn its attention to populations that from what was seen in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in China.

“We put our energy at high-risk environments and overreacted there,” Matyas said. That meant responding with quarantine protocols to places where older residents lived — nursing homes and memory care — after just one reported infection, rather than waiting for a cluster of cases. “I couldn’t care less about schools. Yes, a lot of children test positive, but they mostly have brought it from home, and they are not effective in spreading it.”

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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