Addressing the public at a Zoom conference on Wednesday, Sonoma County health officials tried to take a delicate line. They spoke of “widespread transmission” of the coronavirus in the community, while stressing that better days are ahead – and reminding everyone of the bad times that preceded them.
“I still believe we’re in a much better place than we have been in the past 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 if we look at different state models, it seems that this wave will probably peak around mid-May. So I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see our case numbers drop 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 numbers could be significantly higher.
“A lot of people test themselves (at home) and test positive, not reporting to the system,” says Dr. Lee Riley, chair of the Division 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 probably greater than what’s been reported.”
Because of the breakdown in reporting, you could reasonably expect the number of cases to drop, Riley said. Instead, the trend is upward. And so is test positivity, which was 8% of all samples tested in Sonoma County as of Wednesday.
The data shows a community still in the throes of a persistent pandemic. But Mase doesn’t want the threat to be exaggerated.
“This is not like the increases we’ve seen in the past,” she said, noting that the current number of cases “is still only a tenth of the number of cases we had in January. At that point, we saw 256 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, for a country of our size, that meant we were seeing about 1,300 new cases every day.”
Hospital admissions remain “stable and low,” Mase said. On Wednesday, 23 people were in provincial hospitals with COVID, with one in intensive care. And Sonoma County has not registered a COVID-related death since April 15. If that holds – sometimes there is a delay in data collection – it will be the longest period without a COVID death here since the start of the pandemic.
Yet the disruptions of this health crisis are not behind us. St. Rose Catholic School, a kindergarten through eighth grade in the Mark West area of Santa Rosa, closed its campus this week due to an outbreak that spread across several classes. And at least one Sonoma County kindergarten, CASTLE Preschool in Sebastopol, will be closed Thursday through Monday after it records a positive test.
Most analysts link continued levels of infection to successive mutations of the coronavirus that first began sending shockwaves across the world in early 2020. The omicron variant of that original SARS-CoV-2 virus was largely responsible for the huge January spike, and a sub-variant of ommicron 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 appeared 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 baseline coronavirus.
Meanwhile, two other ommicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, are sparking a new wave of cases in South Africa. To date, neither has been detected in Sonoma County, Pack said.
The spread of these many variants is one of the reasons everyone in the field is working so hard to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
“Those who will get serious illness or die are those who haven’t been vaccinated,” Riley said. “There are still quite a few. 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 may not see a big increase. 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 people are 18 times more likely to end up in the hospital if they get 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.