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Wildfires in Sonoma County increase risk of expanded coronavirus transmission

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As Sonoma County residents continue facing a high risk of coronavirus infection, wildfire evacuations that have scattered thousands could result in further spread of the highly contagious virus, health officials said Monday.

Due to the threat of COVID-19, the county limited public shelters for evacuees and most residents displaced by the Walbridge fire in west Sonoma County have found refuge with friends and extended family.

County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said the virus will take advantage of the fire-related community disruption.

“Whenever we have people who are in constant contact with one another that don't normally live together, there's definitely a risk of transmission of COVID,” Mase said, during a press briefing.

Already, the county is struggling to contain the virus, she said, and “we’ll have to wait and see” what the effects will be of the fires compounding the difficulty of a pandemic.

As the year’s first wildfires fill the air with smoke and ash, the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge well into its sixth month.

The county last week reported 18 deaths from the virus between Sunday and Saturday, the most in a single week. The overall pandemic death toll, as of Monday, stood at 73 residents, at least 58 of whom had lived in senior care homes.

The wildfire increases the risks of contracting the coronavirus, Mase said, and in some cases COVID-19 symptoms like sneezing and coughing are exacerbated.

Asymptomatic virus carriers could be more likely to spread the disease in the community, Mase said.

“They may now have the symptoms of cough and be more likely to spread COVID,” the health officer said. “The best option is to remain indoors and go outside only for essential activities. Limit socializing with people outside of your own household.”

The most recent public health data shows the average share of all COVID-19 tests that are positive during a seven-day period in Sonoma County is 10.9%. By comparison, the state’s overall positivity rate is 5.6%, according to data released Monday by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Not only is the county’s virus positivity rate much greater than the state’s, it has skyrocketed since hovering between 2% and 3% in the spring.

What’s more, the county’s two-week virus infection rate is now 290 cases per 100,000 residents, nearly three times the 100 cases per 100,000 population rate established by the state as a key threshold for controlling the virus.

That excessive level of COVID-19 transmission will keep Sonoma County on the state’s watchlist of counties struggling most to slow down the virus. The county landed on the watchlist almost six weeks ago. Counties on the list are required to keep a number of indoor businesses closed, including barbershops, hair salons, places of worship, fitness centers and bars. And restaurants, wineries and breweries are limited to outdoor food and beverage service.

Newsom said Monday five counties recently have been removed from state monitoring, including Mono, Orange, Calaveras, Sierra and Napa counties. Napa is the first of the nine-county Bay Area to get a handle on the virus and attain removal from the watchlist.

Newsom, who pointed out that 35 counties remain under close monitoring, said his office would later this week release new guidance for reopening businesses and public activities.

Newsom said statewide the number of new COVID-19 infections continues to decline. He said the number of people hospitalized with the virus has declined 20% over the past 14 days, while the number of virus patients being treated in hospital intensive-care units similarly has decreased 19% over two weeks.

Despite the expanded transmission of the coronavirus in Sonoma County, there is a sliver of good news, Mase said. Its spread in area skilled nursing homes, the deadly epicenter of the pandemic locally, continues to slow.

“Our outbreaks in our skilled nursing facilities is definitely slowing down which is actually really good news for our vulnerable population,” Mase said.

Also, in Sonoma County, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has been stable. As of Sunday, total virus-related hospitalizations was 45. Coronavirus hospitalizations hit a local high of 64 on July 20 and more recently 61 on August 17, according to the county’s COVID-19 hospital capacity dashboard.

The state’s hospitalization data for COVID-19 shows a significant decline in the number of county residents being treated in intensive care. On Sunday, there were six COVID-19 patients in ICU at local hospitals, compared with 22 on July 29.

During what she last week called a “double whammy,” Mase on Monday reiterated the need for local residents to stay vigilant against the pandemic and dangerous levels of wildfire smoke.

She said cloth facial coverings, effective to prevent the spread of COVID-19, do not protect people against the harmful effects of smoke from blazes. Meanwhile, N95 masks equipped with a valve for easier breathing are great during a wildfire, but may actually enhance the spread of the virus, she said.

“At this time, an N95 mask without a valve for exhalation is the best choice if you’re going to be exposed to (wildfire smoke) particles and ash,” Mase said.

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

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

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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