A health worker administers a dose of COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic in Reading. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Sonoma County’s health officer optimistic climbing COVID cases will soon begin to drop

Addressing the public on a Zoom conference Wednesday, Sonoma County health officials attempted to toe a delicate line. They spoke of “widespread transmission” of coronavirus in the community, while emphasizing that better days lie just ahead — and reminding everyone of the bad times that came before.

“I still believe that we are in a much better place than at any time 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 awaits us in terms of new variants, but looking at various state models, it appears this wave will likely peak around the middle of May. So I am cautiously optimistic that we should start to see our case numbers on the decline again soon.”

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 manager for the county’s epidemiology team.

Or at least that was the official rate. The actual figures could be substantially higher.

“A lot of people are testing themselves (at home) and testing positive, and not reporting into the system,” said Dr. Lee Riley, chair of the Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology Department at UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “And a lot of people are not even testing anymore. So the real number is likely greater than what’s reported.”

Because of the breakdown in reporting, you might reasonably expect to see the case rates declining, Riley said. Instead, the trend is upward. And that’s also true of test positivity, which was 8% of all tested samples in Sonoma County as of Wednesday.

The data portrays a community still in the throes of a stubborn pandemic. But Mase doesn’t want the threat overstated.

“This is not like surges we’ve seen in the past,” she said, noting the current case rate is “still just one-tenth of the case rate we had in January. At that time, we were seeing 256 cases per 100,000 residents. For a county of our size, that meant we were seeing around 1,300 new cases every day.”

Hospitalizations remain “stable and low,” Mase said. As of Wednesday, 23 people were in county hospitals with COVID, with one in intensive care. And Sonoma County hasn’t recorded a COVID-related death since April 15. If that holds up — sometimes there is a lag in data collection — it will be the longest span without a COVID death here since the start of the pandemic.

Still, the disruptions of this health crisis aren’t behind us. St. Rose Catholic School, a preschool through eighth grade facility in the Mark West area of Santa Rosa, closed its campus this week because of an outbreak that spread through several grade levels. And at least one Sonoma County preschool, CASTLE Preschool in Sebastopol, will be closed Thursday through Monday after recording a positive test.

Most analysts tie the lingering infection levels to successive mutations of the coronavirus that first began to send shock waves around the world in early 2020. The omicron variant of that original SARS-CoV-2 virus was largely responsible for the huge spike in January, and a subvariant of omicron, called BA.2, is driving the wave hitting many parts of the country now, including the Bay Area.

It goes still deeper. A mutation of BA.2 has appeared in Northern California. It’s known as BA.2.12.1 and it’s more transmissible than BA.2, which was more transmissible than the first version of omicron, which was more transmissible than the baseline coronavirus.

Meanwhile, two other omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, are leading to a new case surge in South Africa. To date, neither has been detected in Sonoma County, Pack said.

The proliferation of these many variants is one reason everyone in the field is working so hard to get as many people as possible vaccinated.

“The ones that will develop severe disease or die are the ones who are not vaccinated,” Riley said. “There’s still a substantial number of them. And they tend to be together in certain communities. When a new variant comes in and enters that community — in terms of total numbers, you might not see a big surge. But in those communities, it can have a big effect. And the virus can survive and evolve in those places.”

Here in Sonoma County, the unvaccinated are 18 times more likely to end up in the hospital if they contract COVID, and 13 times more likely to die of 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.

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