Sonoma County issues masking order for health care workers as COVID-19 cases rise

Sonoma County officials Tuesday issued a health order requiring health care workers to wear masks in patient care settings, a move triggered by rising cases of respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19 and influenza.

Dr. Karen Smith, the county’s interim health officer, said higher rates of respiratory illnesses that can cause severe infections occur between the fall and spring.

Smith said in a statement that those in health care and congregate facilities, particularly young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions are at greater risk for respiratory virus-related hospitalizations and death.

“Workers in direct care, health care, and congregate facilities are at risk for respiratory illness and can transmit the viruses to their clients, patients, and co-workers,” she said.

During the pandemic, elderly residents in senior care facilities were often infected by staff who had contracted the virus at home or somewhere in the community.

According to county public health data, 35% of the 571 deaths have occurred among residents of skilled nursing homes or residential care facilities for the elderly.

County public health staff currently use COVID-19 wastewater surveillance and hospitalization rates to determine the level of local coronavirus transmission.

Smith said the level of COVID-19 virus in Santa Rosa and Windsor wastewater is increasing, a trend public health staff are closely monitoring.

But more impotrantly, she said, COVID-19 hospitalizations are also increasing. In the county reached 31, the highest number since mid-April, according to county data.

“We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where hospitals are straining,” she said, adding that hospitalization rates are still far below where they were during the worst surges of the pandemic.

The masking rule for health care workers is largely a preventative measure aimed at protecting those who are at the highest risk of severe outcomes from respiratory illnesses, she said. It primarily applies to medical staff who come into contact with patients.

County health officials said the new health order applies to staff at health care facilities, including hospitals, clinics, surgery centers, infusion centers, dialysis centers, skilled nursing facilities, portions of long-term care facilities where nursing care is provided, and other facilities where patient care is provided indoors.

It’s the first coronavirus-related health mandate since the state and county lifted masking rules in early April of this year, allowing local health care facilities in to make their own policy around masking.

At that time, COVID-19 “community levels,” as determined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were designated as “low.”

The COVID-19 level in Sonoma County continues to be low, as it is in all but seven counties in California.

In addition to Smith’s new masking rule, the health official issued “guidance” strongly recommending everyone 6 months and older get an updated COVID-19 vaccine to protect against possible serious outcomes of a COVID-19 infection this winter.

Smith recommends a flu shot for everyone 6 months old and older. She also recommends that people, whether vaccinated or not, wear masks in public indoor settings when the COVID or influenza risk in Sonoma County is high.

Smith said the health order comes amid continued transmission of COVID-19, coupled with the recurrence of seasonal flu and other winter respiratory illnesses, such as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

A severe flu season amid high rates of COVID-19 this winter could potentially overwhelm the local health care system with patients requiring critical intensive care, officials said. The spread of respiratory illnesses among health care workers can also cause strain the local medical workforce.

Smith said the need for year-round mandatory health orders has been reduced by the widespread availability of COVID-19 testing and treatment, the high level of community vaccination in the county, and fewer fatalities during the most recent coronavirus surges.

But the county’s most vulnerable residents, including the elderly, chronically ill and people with suppressed immune systems, continue to be at risk of severe outcomes from respiratory illness infections.

The new mandate is the first public health order issued in Sonoma County by Smith, who took over as interim health officer.

The county’s last pandemic-era health order, issued in Jan. 10, 2022, prohibited large gatherings. Most of the health orders since then were either amendments or orders that rescinded previous mandates.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or [email protected]. On Twitter @pressreno.

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