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.