Addressing the public at a Zoom conference on Wednesday, Sonoma County health officials attempted to trace a sensitive line. They spoke of “widespread transmission” of the coronavirus in the community but stressed that better days are ahead – reminding everyone of the bad times that had come before.
“I still believe we’re in a much better place than we’ve been in the last two years and I’m optimistic about where we’re going,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer. “You never know what new variants await us, but looking at different state models, it seems that this wave is likely to peak in mid-May. So I’m cautiously optimistic that our case numbers will soon drop again.”
As of Wednesday, Sonoma County’s rolling seven-day COVID rate was 26.7 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, said Kate Pack, health program director for the county’s epidemiology team.
Or at least that was the official rate. The actual numbers could be much higher.
“A lot of people test themselves (at home) and test positive and don’t report into the system,” said Dr. Lee Riley, Chair of the Department of Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “And a lot of people don’t even test anymore. So the actual number is likely larger than those reported.”
Based on the breakdown in coverage, you can reasonably expect the number of cases to drop, Riley said. Instead, the trend is up. And so is test positivity, which was 8% of all samples tested in Sonoma County as of Wednesday.
The data shows a community still mired in an intractable pandemic. But Mase doesn’t want to exaggerate the threat.
“This isn’t a historical spike,” she said, noting that the current fall rate is “still only a tenth of the fall rate that we had in January. Back then we saw 256 cases per 100,000 population. For a county our size, that meant we were seeing about 1,300 new cases every day.”
Hospitalizations remain “stable and low,” Mase said. As of Wednesday, 18 people with COVID were in county hospitals, four of them in intensive care. And Sonoma County has not recorded a COVID-related death since April 15. If this continues — sometimes there is a lag in data collection — this will be the longest span of time without COVID-related deaths since the pandemic began.
Still, the disruptions of this health crisis are not behind us. St. Rose Catholic School, a preschool through eighth grade facility in the Mark West neighborhood of Santa Rosa, closed its campus this week due to an outbreak that spread through multiple grade levels. And at least one Sonoma County preschool, CASTLE Preschool in Sebastopol, will close Thursday through Monday after a positive test was recorded.
Most analysts attribute the continued infection rates to consecutive mutations in the coronavirus, which first sent shockwaves around the world in early 2020. The omicron variant of this original SARS-CoV-2 virus was largely responsible for January’s huge surge. A subvariant of omicron called BA.2 is driving the wave that is now hitting many parts of the country, including the Bay Area.
It goes even deeper. A mutation of BA.2 has occurred in Northern California. It is known as BA.2.12.1 and is more transmissible than BA.2 which was more transmissible than the first version of omicron which was more transmissible than the basic coronavirus.
Meanwhile, two other omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, are leading to a surge in new cases in South Africa. To date, nothing has been discovered in Sonoma County, Pack said.
The prevalence of these many variants is one of the reasons everyone in this field is working so hard to vaccinate as many people as possible.
“Those who develop serious illness or die are the ones who are unvaccinated,” Riley said. “There are still a significant number of them. And they tend to be together in certain communities. When a new variant comes in and enters that community, you might not see a big increase in terms of the total. But in these communities, it can have a big impact. And the virus can survive and develop in these places.”
Here in Sonoma County, unvaccinated people are 18 times more likely to end up in the hospital if they contract COVID and 13 times more likely to die from the disease, Mase said. Since the beginning of the year, she added, Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center has not admitted a single COVID patient who has been vaccinated.
Overall, 82% of the county’s eligible population is currently fully vaccinated, with an additional 7% partially immunized. Those numbers rank it 10th out of California’s 58 counties.