One month after coronavirus shutdown, Sonoma County looks forward to future
One month ago, a half-million people in Sonoma County were ordered to stay home, an unprecedented sacrifice to help stem the tide of a pandemic illness devastating communities across the globe.
At that time, just six people had tested positive for COVID-19 in Sonoma County but public health officer Dr. Sundari Mase said she believed even the limited testing data showed the virus was circulating in the community.
Two days after her March 18 public health order came into effect, a man in his 60s died from complications of the disease. One of the earliest Sonoma County residents hospitalized locally with the coronavirus, he had been cared for by nurses and doctors with Sutter Santa Rosa’s intensive care unit who tried but could not save him from an entirely new illness.
Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin recalled the sense of alarm for the well-being of the entire county. Even one death here signaled the county could be at risk for experiencing the kind of devastation that had caused China and Italy to totally shut down.
Four weeks in and with increasingly restrictive orders - parks closed to the public, school campuses shut for the remainder of the year and masks required for all in public - the strategy seems to have limited the coronavirus’s spread, albeit with serious costs.
“We recognize now one month in, the economic impacts are resting heavily on those in our community who can least afford it,” Gorin said.
Despite clear warning of the serious nature of the disease that emerged out of China in December, the United States had failed to prepare for the type of widespread testing that might have allowed for early detection and prevention measures.
Locking down society and arresting commerce were measures of last resort to buy time for officials to prepare for a surge of people seriously sick from the respiratory disease that experts warned could overwhelm hospitals.
Sonoma County received its first local testing kits for COVID-19 on March 6 and since then a network of public and commercial labs have run 4,200 tests for the disease - with 96% coming up negative.
On March 16, about 7 million Bay Area residents were ordered to shelter at home. Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase issued a similar isolation order effective 12:01 a.m. March 18. Gov. Gavin Newsom followed the next day with a statewide order.
On Friday, Newsom acknowledged the state had entered a “pandemic- induced recession.” Mase and other health officers across the San Francisco Bay Area are now looking for ways to lessen the economic blow in phases. They might start by gradually opening the door for people to enjoy parks and for some businesses to reopen with new measures in place to ensure physical distance between people.
But Mase and other public health experts warn they may be forced to yank back the leash if the number of infections deviate from a consistent downward path.
“We’ve never done this before,” Mase said.
This massive community sacrifice appears to have had an unexpected “exponential” impact decreasing the virus’s spread, she said.
That first week of the public health order, Sonoma Valley nonprofit La Luz Center gave out $16,000 in rental assistance to families, mostly undocumented immigrants, said family services advocate Maria Calvillo Moncada. Since then, it has fielded 40 to 50 applications for help each week and given out about $90,000 in rental assistance to local families.
Calvillo Moncada has hourlong phone appointments with five to seven clients each day, which she fits between home-school help for her two children, ages 10 and 16.
“Oh my goodness, this is overwhelming and stressful, but doable and hopeful,” Moncada said.
Our high-risk area
Santa Rosa infectious disease specialist Dr. Gary Green described the potential for an outbreak in Sonoma County, which has a sizable older population, as having “a brush fire with weeds really high.” About 1 in 5 residents in the county is over the age of 65, a population group at higher risk for severe illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Earlier this year as Green pored over epidemiological models coming out of China, he began to develop a picture that Sonoma County could be in for a three-month event should the coronavirus cross the globe.
But the public health directives have been highly effective, Green said. He credits the experiences that Sonoma County residents have had while withstanding disasters, which have contributed to the increasingly positive outlook.
“Being in a semi-rural community that has been through two fires, I think our community is not so rattled,” Green said. “That’s why I think we’re going to weather it well.”