Sonoma County’s pandemic-related fatalities in August were the greatest number since February, the deadly fallout of a summer surge health experts say was driven by the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.
Public health officials said 21 people died in the month from the virus, and due to delays in reporting COVID-19 deaths a few more could be added to that total.
Thirteen of those who lost their lives were unvaccinated. Eight residents that died had been inoculated against the respiratory disease, but each person suffered underlying health problems and a few were over 90 years old, officials said.
Local fatalities started a steep monthly climb since only a single death in May, before summer began. Then there were four deaths in June, followed by 16 in July, before the jump even higher in August.
Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer of the county’s Providence hospitals, including Santa Rosa Memorial, Petaluma Valley and Healdsburg medical centers, said August was the company’s second-highest month of patient fatalities in this county from complications of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
“This emphasizes the importance of vaccinations,” Krilich said, noting the vaccines are safe and effective in reducing hospitalizations and fatalities from the virus.
The majority of patient admissions and deaths in August associated with COVID-19 at Providence’s area hospitals were among unvaccinated people, he said.
As September begins, Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, said coronavirus transmission rates are declining among vaccinated and unvaccinated residents.
“It’s a good trend, generally,” Mase said, adding that she’s hopeful a decline of infections will translate into a drop in hospitalizations and deaths.
“I hope that as hospitalizations decrease our deaths will also decrease,” she said. “We just have to wait and see.”
Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco, said that vaccinated individuals who get infected are experiencing less severe symptoms and lower risk of hospitalization and death.
“Going into the fall, especially with boosters coming on, I think these trends will continue,” Rutherford said.
The county’s decline of new COVID-19 cases likely is the result of several factors, Mase said, including a return to masking indoors in mid-July, a general change in public behavior as the virus started spreading rapidly earlier this summer and recent vaccination requirements by public and local private employers.
On Tuesday, the Santa Rosa City Council directed the city manager to adopt a policy requiring all city employees to provide proof of full coronavirus inoculations or submit to weekly testing.
The order is effective Oct. 1 and applies to all of the city’s 1,520 permanent and temporary employees, as well as city volunteers. The move follows a similar vaccination order for county employees, approved by county supervisors on Aug. 18. The county’s order takes effect Sept. 7.
“There’s people just getting more worried again and starting to take precautions,” Mase said. “It’s kind of a natural trend in things, and then there’s more and more people getting vaccinated.”
Meanwhile, as August was coming to a close, county public health officials Monday reported three more deaths, the latest virus-related fatalities that raised the pandemic death toll to 356.
The deaths included an unvaccinated woman over 64 who died August 18, an unvaccinated man between 50 and 64 who died Aug. 20, and a vaccinated man over 64 who died Aug. 23. All three were hospitalized and had underlying health conditions, health officials said.
When comparing the virus resurgence this summer to last summer’s wave of infections, local mortality rates have been lower this year.
In August 2020, a time when the virus was ripping through the county’s skilled nursing and assisted living centers, 49 people died from the pandemic disease. The following month, another 32 people died, many of them senior care home residents.
This summer, with nearly all senior care home residents vaccinated, there have been only two COVID-19 deaths among those residents since February, health officials said.
In February, which marked the tail end of this winter’s deadly surge, the pandemic claimed 31 local residents, while in December and January, there were 51 and 68 COVID-19 deaths, respectively. January was the county’s monthly peak for coronavirus fatalities.
Rutherford said the aggressive vaccination campaign early this year shielded seniors, who are among the most vulnerable during the pandemic, from summer infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
Looking ahead, health officials and regional infectious disease experts pointed to promising signs regarding the lingering public health crisis.
The number of hospitalizations due to the virus in Sonoma County on Monday was 68. That’s down from the 84 patients who were hospitalized here on Aug. 15.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 transmission levels are declining, too. The average daily transmission rate per 100,000 residents for unvaccinated people in the county is now 30.7, while the same rate for vaccinated residents is 5.9.
A month ago, the transmission rate for the unvaccinated was 54.9 new daily cases per 100,000 people. Of the county’s 429,000 residents 12 and older who are eligible for vaccinations, about 77,000 or 18% still have not been not vaccinated. Among those inoculated, 73.9% are fully vaccinated, while 7.9% have gotten one shot.
Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease expert at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, said COVID-19 deaths lag transmission levels by about a month.
“On average, it’s about a week from the diagnosis to hospitalization and two-to-three weeks from hospitalization to death,” he said. “So, the decline in cases in Sonoma county will be reflected in (declining) deaths in 3 to 4 weeks.”
Swartzberg said the pandemic’s death run this summer was curtailed by the wide availability of the vaccines and hospitals’ experience in treating COVID-19 patients.
“We know a lot more about how to care for the seriously ill,” he said.
Krilich, the chief medical officer for Providence hospitals in Sonoma County, said the “keys“ to finally getting the pandemic under control is the remainder of local residents getting vaccinated, along with other public health safety measures.
“Time will tell whether our inpatient COVID volumes and mortalities will increase or decrease,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or [email protected] On Twitter @pressreno.