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One month after coronavirus shutdown, Sonoma County looks forward to future

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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.”

Still, Green, who among several roles serves as medical director of infection control with Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center, remains concerned about protective measures for nurses, doctors and all hospital staff.

Workforce affected

Thousands of Sonoma County residents must continue working, especially those keeping the stores and hospitals running, risking their health for the benefit of others.

Statewide, 3,370 health workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to data released Saturday. That includes at least 33 health care workers in Sonoma County.

Thursday, Newsom announced the state would provide sick leave benefits for a broad category of food industry workers, from farmworkers and grocery store employees to delivery drivers and restaurant staff.

That, however, will not dispel the financial insecurity that has set in for thousands in Sonoma County.

At least 2,000 people lost work in the county in early March, the state Employment Development Department reported Friday. The monthly survey was conducted shortly before Mase issued her shelter-in-place order and excludes untold layoffs over the last four weeks as businesses shut down. National figures show unemployment claims tripled over the last month, surpassing 20 million. Some 2.7 million Californians have filed unemployment claims in the last month, Newsom said Wednesday.

“Everyone to some extent is impacted by this crisis,” said Sheba Person- Whitley, executive director of the Economic Development Board of Sonoma County. “It’s certainly a public health crisis and an economic crisis that we’re dealing with.”

Innovation transpires

In California, an estimated 43% of residents have a high risk of losing their jobs if the pandemic causes persistent and severe economic shutdown, according to Los Angeles- based nonprofit Economic Roundtable.

It’s the mom-and-pop-style businesses that create the character of a city, attracting residents and visitors alike, and have the most to lose in this crisis, said Raissa de la Rosa, economic development manager with the city of Santa Rosa.

The shutdown has forced innovation. Smaller businesses are creating an online presence for the first time, clothing retailers are offering virtual personal shopping experiences, restaurants are pivoting to curbside pickup.

Santa Rosa stands to lose key revenue from cancellation of big events that fill hotels and restaurants, such as the Ironman race, Levi’s Gran Fondo annual cycling ride and the summertime cannabis cup held by High Times. The 70.3-mile Ironman race alone generated $11 million in local spending, according to a 2018 analysis.

“It’s going to be painful and we must support our local businesses,” de la Rosa said. “This is not just on government. This is on all of us to really take seriously.”

The future remains uncertain and dependent on scientists developing an effective vaccine.

When schools reopen, classrooms could be fundamentally changed with half the number of students in each class and new limits on physical proximity, fundamentally changing instruction, recess and lunch.

New level of obligation

Already, more than 4,000 elementary school teachers in Sonoma County have transformed education from in-class instruction to video sessions and online assignments.

Amy Eng, a sixth grade teacher at Roseland Elementary School, said the challenge has brought the diversity of her students to the forefront. Some children are looking after younger siblings while their parents work. Some don’t have stable internet access. Some relied on school for food. But they are all mostly showing up to her virtual classes with an eagerness to learn.

“Sixth graders are very social. They need that interaction with their peers,” Eng said. “They’re fully attentive, even with all of their distractions.”

Like so many working parents, Eng’s days are packed with an entirely new level of obligation. She plans her video classes around her 12-year-old son’s schoolwork and must ensure her 5-year-old daughter gets to play outside and release energy before mom needs her to play quietly inside — or with her husband when he’s home from work.

Simple things fall away, like regular showers and remembering there’s pizza in the oven.

“I used to get overwhelmed with balancing my personal life and my work life,” Eng said. “This is 10 times harder trying to balance it all in one place.”

Lots of uncertainty

Each day, the number of people who have recovered from the illness increases.

Among the 87 known cases the county puts in this category are people like Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Jamie Thistlethwaite, 68, and her husband, Steve Weiss, 71, a retired public defender. They battled the illness at home and are feeling better.

Former Windsor Police Chief Carlos Basurto, 51, who retired last year as a lieutenant with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and continued to work part time as a bailiff at Sonoma County Superior Court, was hospitalized for 20 days in March. It was a true fight for his life from some of the most serious effects of the respiratory disease. He is now recovering at home.

The deaths, while small in number on the North Coast, are massive in impact.

Longtime Guerneville resort owner and community leader Alby Kass, 89, died March 31 while convalescing at a Hayward nursing home hard hit by the disease.

There are at least two other Sonoma County residents who have died from the disease. They have not been publicly identified.

The same day Kass succumbed to the illness, Santa Rosa Police Detective Marylou Armer, a Napa County resident, died at a hospital in Vallejo after contracting COVID-19.

Armer’s death shocked her family and the community because of her relatively youthful age, 43, and the fact that her family has said she lacked underlying health conditions, such as asthma, that might have explained the ferocious hold of the disease.

Armer was unexpectedly hospitalized on a day in late March when she went to the hospital to get a test for COVID-19, after having been denied testing twice, according to her family. The doctors were alarmed by the dangerously low levels of oxygen in her bloodstream, her sister said.

Her loss is deeply personal while also part of a worldwide tragedy, one that has prevented those who loved her from gathering, even in casual moments at work, and grieving together, said Armer’s longtime colleague and friend, Stephen Bussell, president of the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association. Armer was a bridesmaid when Bussell married his wife in 2005.

“We haven’t been able to come together as our family, as our coworkers, to talk about things and grieve normally,” Bussell said.

She is among at least 10 law enforcement personnel and staff in Sonoma County to contract the disease, including Basurto and eight of Armer’s colleagues with the Santa Rosa Police Department.

Some have had mild symptoms or none at all, while others have been very ill, he said.

“There are still a lot of unknowns and uncertainty,” Bussell said. “We’re taking every precaution we can. But we’re used to working in team environments, and that’s been broken.

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