With the coronavirus sharply diminished, putting Sonoma County on the brink again of further reopening business operations within a week, health officials and infectious disease experts worried Easter gatherings and holiday travel could spread the virus and hinder the yearlong battle to defeat the pandemic.
Dr. Sundari Mase, the county health officer, said the highly contagious respiratory disease could easily restrengthen circulation, if residents become too complacent in guarding against a public health threat that is still very real.
“Everyone should continue to follow mitigation measures and avoid gatherings, especially now with the Easter weekend,” Mase said Friday, also discouraging travel. “We’re not out of the woods.”
Mase pointed out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s relaxed travel guidance released Friday was for people fully vaccinated. Though the CDC still discouraged travel for everyone else because of steadily increasing COVID-19 cases in parts of the country, the agency said individuals fully inoculated could travel at low risk to themselves without getting tested for the virus beforehand or self-quarantining after a trip.
The county’s vaccination campaign, the most powerful weapon to defeat the stubborn coronavirus and its variant strains, was not close Friday to reaching the point of immunizing the community.
Called herd immunity, that’s when 75% to 85% of the population has been fully vaccinated, and then the virus can no longer easily transmit from one person to the next. Only 28% of the county’s 490,000 residents have been fully inoculated, according to local public health data.
Last month, Mase said local herd immunity was attainable by the end of the summer.
Dr. Lee Riley, who heads the infectious disease and vaccinology division at UC Berkeley, also struck a note of caution.
Riley warned that the virus and its variants are surging in other parts of the United States, Europe and Brazil. Also troubling, he said, an increasing number of COVID-19 cases are being documented among younger people.
Riley acknowledged that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a high level of public alertness against the virus after a year of pandemic isolation and restrictions. The weather is warming, people want to travel and there’s a lot of coronavirus fatigue, he said.
“We need more people vaccinated. We need to be able to get closer to what we call herd immunity,” Riley said. “That’s when we can begin to relax, because we don’t want to see here what happened in Brazil.”
On Friday, the county reported 53 new COVID-19 cases and the most recent adjusted daily infection rate was 3.9 new daily cases per 100,000 residents as of Thursday. Overall there were only 848 active virus cases countywide on Friday.
Meanwhile, the virus test positivity countywide, the share of tests that turned up positive, stood at only 1.7%. And positive tests in the county’s disadvantaged communities represented 2.3% of the total, according to the latest public health data.
County health officials Thursday reported the first local death due to complications from the coronavirus in more than two weeks, boosting the pandemic total to 309 fatalities.
Sonoma County’s recent success blunting the spread of the virus enabled the county on March 30 to qualify to move from the state’s red reopening tier to the less restrictive orange tier, as long as the county keeps the contagion in check for two more weeks.
That means the county could be eligible to advance to the orange stage on April 13, and under state rules further ease restrictions on businesses and public activities the next day.
Under California’s four-part reopening road map for its 58 counties, locales are assigned to one of the four tiers based on success controlling the virus, measured by new daily case rate, overall virus test positivity and test positivity in poor neighborhoods. Sonoma County was stuck in the most restrictive purple tier, indicating widespread transmission, from late August when the state introduced the reopening regimen, until jumping to the red tier on March 14.
However, there’s another path for the county to advance as soon as this week into the orange reopening tier.
State health officials said once 4 million doses are administered in disadvantaged communities, they would make it easier for counties like Sonoma in the red tier, indicating substantial transmission, to move to the less restrictive orange tier, designated for counties with moderate transmission.
As of Thursday, California had administered 3.7 million doses of vaccine in its underserved communities hardest hit by the pandemic. The state has been getting shots into the arms of between 85,000 and 100,000 of its poorest residents a day.
At that rate, the state should hit 4 million doses by Sunday or Monday. State officials said two days after hitting the vaccination target in poor neighborhoods, counties statewide in the red tier with sufficiently low virus transmission could advance to the next less restrictive orange reopening stage.
Moving to orange would allow businesses, such as stores, restaurants and gyms, to broaden indoor customer capacity. For example, restaurants could expand food and drink service to 50% capacity inside or to 200 people, whichever is less. Notably, bars that don’t serve food finally would be able to reopen outside after a long hiatus.
Wineries, breweries and distilleries where no meals are served could reopen indoors at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is less. Movie theaters, limited to 25% capacity under the red tier, could expand to 50%.
“In all likelihood, we will end up in the orange next week,” Mase said Friday, still urging vigilance by wearing a mask, maintaining prudent social distance and not gathering in large groups. “If we see an increase in cases because of gatherings or people who are not following mitigation measures, we end up back in the red.”
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @pressreno.