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Two more Sonoma County residents die from coronavirus as local death toll rises to 14

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

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Two Sonoma County residents died Monday from complications of the coronavirus, bringing the local death toll to 14 since the pandemic began in March, local health officials said Tuesday.

County health officials reported the two additional fatalities late Tuesday night. One is a man and the other a woman, and both were over 65 and residents of skilled nursing centers, said Rohish Lal, a spokesman for the county Department of Health Services.

The deaths mark the eighth and ninth virus-related fatalities since June 28, and at least seven of the victims were residents of senior care centers.

The local woman who died Saturday from the coronavirus contracted the disease in a residential care home where she lived, county health officials said Tuesday. She had underlying health conditions and died at an area hospital.

Her death, Monday’s fatalities and the spate since the end of June, present another grim indication the highly contagious pathogen continues to rapidly spread through the county’s vulnerable populations in senior care centers.

“It’s because our skilled nursing facilities are involved,” county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Tuesday in an interview, citing the string of deaths, before the revelation later that two more people died. “It’s the vulnerable people, that’s why we’re having those deaths.”

The new fatalities come as Sonoma County reels from a resurgence of COVID-19 and braces for state health officials to any day put the county on a watch list of counties statewide struggling most to contain the virus. That could quickly lead to another bout of painful restrictions, including closing bars and halting indoor dining and drinking at local restaurants, breweries and wineries for three weeks.

State health officials said counties that for three consecutive days fall short of any one of a handful of public health benchmarks for controlling the virus are put on the state’s monitoring list, which included 23 counties Tuesday night. If a county remains in need of monitoring another three days, that prompts the state to order business shutdowns that target places where people are at high risk of transmitting or getting infected by the coronavirus.

Since Saturday, Sonoma County has failed to keep its case rate per 100,000 residents below 100 for a 14-day period. The county health department did not report an new cases on Saturday and Sunday, and then Monday reported 201 new infections between Friday and Monday, then 21 more on Tuesday, pushing overall cases to 1,487 since the first one on March 2. The backlog over the weekend in reporting daily new cases was caused by protracted verification protocols at the local and state level that involve confirming each new infection and its origin, health officials said.

Mase said her public health team on Tuesday was reviewing the most recent local data on infections and virus-related hospitalizations to determine if the county should be on the state’s watchlist.

She reiterated she expects the county to land among those being closely monitored by the state. Once in the group, Mase said there’s not much counties can do to get off of it before the 3-day trigger for state-mandated closures.

The health officer explained the state’s mandate to close places like bars where large groups gather indoors is aimed at reducing the risk of new COVID-19 infections from unknown sources in the community, which is the most difficult aspect of the virus outbreak to control.

Meanwhile, Mase said although local cases attributed to community spread, meaning from an unknown source, are increasing, county public health workers would continue their targeted work of contact tracing, surveillance in skilled nursing centers and quick response to large virus outbreaks in workplaces and in family clusters, particularly among Latinos that have been suffering a disproportionate number of infections. That strategy enabled Sonoma County to bend the curve of the virus outbreak for months, before it roared back in the past two to three weeks.

To help contend with myriad issues connected with the outbreak in the Latino community, Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday formed an Office of Equity to focus on the disproportionate impact the virus is having on Latino and indigenous communities. Nearly 3 of 4 virus cases involve Latino residents, although they only comprise 27% of the county’s nearly 500,000 population.

Keeping the contagion under control senior care centers, which includes skilled nursing and residential care facilities for the elderly, also has been a major challenge for health officials here and across the nation.

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Thirty-four area skilled nursing center residents and 22 seniors at residential care centers are battling COVID-19, as of Sunday, the latest tally included in county public health data. In addition, 21 staff at skilled nursing centers and 18 more at residential care facilities are sick with the virus.

As the virus goes deeper into the county’s 20 skilled nursing centers and 177 residential care homes, more staff who work at these facilities are likely to get infected, even though the centers are “doing everything they possibly can” to test and monitor workers, said Crista Barnett Nelson, executive director of the nonprofit Senior Advocacy Services.

It’s the only way residents are becoming infected, she said, since they’re not allowed to leave the properties and family visits are severely limited.

“It’s a really challenging time because cases are increasing among the staff and they’re bringing it into the facilities,” Barnett Nelson said. “One of the challenges is the turnaround time on getting the (virus test) results. If you go to any of the outside testing sites, it’s eight to 10 days. that’s not functionally effective.”

The largest outbreak at a local skilled nursing site has been at Broadway Villa Post Acute in Sonoma, where 30 residents and at least two staff have contracted the virus. At least two Broadway Villa residents who had tested positive for the coronavirus have died, on June 20 and 28.

On June 29, an 84-year-old woman died at Little Bird Assisted Living in Petaluma, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. Two other women died on July 1, one each at a skilled nursing facility and a residential care location. Both were 65 or older, but the places where they lived have not yet been identified due to state rules around when their deaths are cited in California public health data.

Acknowledging the dire situation, Mase said Tuesday county public health workers are keeping a close eye on infection-control measures at county skilled nursing centers, doing onsite visits to ensure health care workers there are being properly screened and are wearing masks.

Mase also said she’s trying to figure out a way to limit people from working at more than one nursing center or residential care home.

“We're looking at health care workers who go from one facility to another to see if we need to intervene and not have people work in multiple facilities,” she said.

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

Editor’s Note: This story has been revised to remove inaccurate information provided by county officials about the county’s status in connection with the state watch list.

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