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Sonoma County health officer reveals second coronavirus outbreak at local winery

On the same day Sonoma County’s health officer confirmed she plans to reopen more businesses Friday, Dr. Sundari Mase on Monday revealed a second coronavirus outbreak in the wine industry involving three employees who have contracted the infectious disease.

Mase declined to disclose the name of the winery, and would only say the employees worked in production rather than in a tasting room or part of the business where they would have directly interacted with customers or other visitors to the winery. County public health workers have responded with what she called a “large-scale” investigation to determine who each of the three came in close contact with during the past couple of weeks.

On May 29, Mase disclosed there was an outbreak at a different local winery involving 14 employees. Since then, she has repeatedly rejected The Press Democrat’s requests for more information on that cluster of infections. On Monday, Mase said the earlier outbreak involved vineyard workers, and again refused to name their employer or say where in the county this cluster of cases occurred, or reveal anything else about it.

The health officer said she was not protecting specific businesses, such as wineries, by withholding company names.

She said the companies are free to divulge publicly that they had an outbreak. “I can’t from a public health perspective give it to you,” she said, noting the county public health team is compiling and analyzing more detailed employment sector data around outbreaks and plans to eventually release that information.

Meanwhile, despite a spike in new local COVID-19 cases from Thursday through the weekend, the health officer indicated another wave of commercial enterprises would be able to restart late this week. They are expected to include: fitness centers; museums; entertainment centers, campgrounds; and hotels and short-term home rentals for leisure travelers; among others.

On Saturday, the county reported 30 more residents were infected by the virus, the largest number of new cases in a single day since the first local case emerged on March 2. There were another six cases of the new coronavirus revealed on Sunday.

Mase said daily cases is just one of several key measures, including the number of people with the virus who require hospital care and the test positivity percentage.

There are seven area residents hospitalized and 2% of the virus tests on 35,500 of the county’s 500,000 residents have been positive.

“Right now, with one metric increasing I don’t think that would in itself decide that we wouldn’t reopen,” she said.

“I’m really interested to see what our two-week average will be, because that’s really where the state’s metric is and our metric, as well.”

On Thursday, when Mase provided a detailed update of the local coronavirus pandemic to the county Board of Supervisors, the two-week infection rate was 31 cases per 100,000 residents.

On Monday night, that case rate had advanced to 39 per 100,000 residents. The county’s highest two-week rate was 41 cases per 100,000 during the 14-day period ending May 25.

The health officer repeated Monday that as the county reopens more business sectors, and with much more aggressive daily testing that additional cases would emerge. Last week, for example, one day the county conducted almost 1,300 tests. And it has been doing close to 1,000 tests a day, double the testing volume a month ago.

Acknowledging the recent spike in cases pushing the county’s total past 750 overall, Mase said this is why she always takes a two-week period after reopening a spate of businesses to closely evaluate the potential effects on the community before approving another round. And it’s also the reason, she said, the county needs to keep expanding its contact tracing and surveillance work to track people who come in close proximity to infected residents, even as many more people are getting tested.

After nearly three months of keeping all but companies deemed essential closed, Mase determined the worst of the virus risk was dissipated and three weeks ago her stance has shifted to gradually rebooting the local economy and trying to live with minimal advances of COVID-19.

“We also know how critical it is for people to be able to get back to work and for businesses to resume their operations,” she said Monday. “Financial stability is a vital aspect of every person’s health and well-being, and you know that. People need to be able to pay their bills and put groceries on the table so we are trying to move into opening more.”

Mase stressed that going forward individual responsibility will be a critical part of the county controlling the spread of the elusive pathogen. That means wearing face coverings when you can’t keep 6 feet away from others not in your immediate family and practicing prudent personal hygiene including hand-washing.

Last week, the health officer underscored the importance of these individual responsibilities telling the county supervisors new state COVID-19 modeling shows that even lax practice of these the personal public health measures would greatly reduce the possibility of a second wave of the virus attacking the county in the fall.

Mase said strict use of face coverings and adhering to social distancing — what she called “nonpharmaceutical interventions” — among county residents could replace the need for her to again shut down the economy, certain business sectors or order most people to largely stay home during another round of the contagion.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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