Tuolumne County courthouse

The Historic Tuolumne County Courthouse on Yaney Avenue in downtown Sonora.

The COVID-19 pandemic spiking in Tuolumne County includes cases of exposure at the Historic Courthouse on Yaney Avenue, Columbia Elementary School, and Sonora High School.

“We just recently discovered COVID-positive cases here, and we're taking appropriate action,” said Hector Gonzalez, the court executive officer for Tuolumne County Superior Court. Gonzalez said the cases discovered at the courthouse came to his attention Monday, the same day county public health staff announced a record number of new coronavirus cases between Saturday and Monday.

Asked how many cases have been traced to the courthouse, Gonzalez said, “That I can’t tell you. We have taken remedial actions in locations where those employees were located, and the public health department is aware. They are doing contact tracing and screening. That’s their lane.”

The locations where an undisclosed number of courthouse workers were exposed to COVID-19 were all employee-only areas and have been cleaned professionally and disinfected, Gonzalez said. 

“Those locations are now safe,” he said.

Gonzalez said the number of cases “is not overwhelming.” 

“We are dealing with it and we are following the public health guidelines, cleaning and disinfecting in work areas,” he said. “We’re trying to be as forthright as we can be but we have HIPAA requirements and we have to respect the privacy rights of our employees.”

Clay Bedford, 67, a private defense attorney who lives in Stanislaus County and represents clients in Tuolumne County Superior Court, contacted The Union Democrat on Tuesday to say that he’s tested positive for COVID-19 and waived his HIPAA rights to privacy so that people will know that there have been cases tied to exposure at the courthouse.

Bedford also shared his situation Tuesday on social media, where he posted publicly, “If I had not been told people were testing positive at the court, I would have been there today and maybe the rest of the week spreading it. I’m pissed.”

Bedford was at the courthouse Monday and said another attorney told him two people connected to the courthouse had tested positive for COVID-19. Two other people with ties to the courthouse had also tested positive, for a total of four cases, Bedford said in a phone interview.

“Nobody told us,” he said Tuesday. “I'm in a high-risk group so I decided to get tested. I tested positive yesterday.”

Bedford said he believes he was exposed to the coronavirus Friday. He said he almost always wears a mask and face shield. He also said he has an acquaintance who can provide same-day testing and results, which was how he quickly determined he is positive for COVID-19.

“Bottom line, the courthouse is a center of COVID and nobody's telling anybody,” he said Tuesday. “The good news is I’m asymptomatic, but that means I could have unknowingly spread it. I would have had full court calendars today, Thursday and Friday.

“Just because people in the courthouse are aware, it doesn't mean citizens coming to the courthouse are being told of this current outbreak. There should be a sign on the courthouse door saying, ‘Warning: There have been COVID cases here,’ so people know.”

Bedford said he was isolating at home. His social media post included his comment about Tuolumne County Superior Court, “They are having a cluster but keeping it secret. I snitched on them to the newspaper.”

Gonzalez disputed Bedford’s account, saying Tuesday afternoon, “I can speak with confidence that there is no way Mr. Bedford was exposed to infection here at the old courthouse. Given the information I know and where he would normally be located, there is no way he could have been infected here at the court. The location where Mr. Bedford was yesterday, we cleaned the courtroom location where Mr. Bedford was located. That was done last night.”

Michelle Jachetta, the Tuolumne County public health director, said her department could not discuss “any individual’s personal health information” when asked if there was a cluster at the courthouse.

Cases of COVID-19 have occurred across “a variety of sectors and we strongly encourage business owners and managers to follow the state guidance for their industry,” she said. “This includes employee screening and a comprehensive safety plan. We do not share the names of businesses or facilities unless it is necessary for case investigations.”

Coronavirus cases have also emerged this month at Columbia Elementary School and Sonora High School. On Monday, the Columbia Union School District announced a second confirmation of COVID-19 in at least one student. 

“All close contacts of the student have been notified and are in quarantine per the Tuolumne County Public Health direction,” the district said. “Enhanced cleaning of the school has been completed.”

District Superintendent Joseph Aldridge was quarantined on Tuesday. 

Aldridge said via email the confirmed case announced on Monday is the second student case of COVID-19 infection at the school.

“We have been notified of another student who tested positive,” he said. “We have been working with public health to ensure accurate contact tracing and communication. Currently, we continue to provide enhanced cleaning protocols in our classrooms and public spaces.”

One student and three staff members at Sonora High School have tested positive for COVID-19 this month, said Ed Pelfrey, superintendent of Sonora Union High School District.

Nov. 3 was the last date of known exposure at Sonora High School for a student and a staff member who have tested positive for COVID-19.

“One student case earlier this month, and three staff cases earlier this month,” Pelfrey said. “No other cases to our knowledge. Our protocols are working. The health and safety of our students is our top priority. We’re letting staff and parents know whenever there’s a case.”

Exposure has been minimal in the four coronavirus cases at Sonora High School, because it’s using a hybrid model with reduced numbers of students and staff on campus, Pelfrey said. 

“We’re mitigating risk effectively right now,” he said, “because our students and staff are exercising proper caution.”

Pelfrey said parents also know if a student does become sick and has to leave campus, their children will still be able to keep up with their classmates through distance learning.

“It's the diligence of our staff and students and parents who are doing things necessary to mitigate COVID and making a difference,” he said.

There have been COVID-19 cases “among staff and students at several schools” in Tuolumne County, Jachetta said, without specifying numbers or locations.

Later Tuesday afternoon, the county Public Health Department announced four new cases of coronavirus for the day. All four individuals were in isolation. They were described as a boy or man under age 20, a man in his 30s, a man in his 50s, and a woman in her 70s.

There have been 364 total cases of COVID-19 counted in the county since early March, with 273 individuals recovered and 68 active cases. One person with COVID-19 was hospitalized. 

The deaths of eight county residents have also been attributed to the virus.

Due to surging numbers of cases in recent weeks, county residents, workers and business owners can expect the county will be bumped to the state’s most restrictive category on a state Blueprint for a Safer Economy on Tuesday, Nov. 17, Jachetta and her staff said in their Tuesday afternoon update.

“Once a county moves into a more restrictive tier, businesses have three days to make the modifications to their business practices to remain in compliance,” the update said. “That implementation date would be Friday, November 20.”

There were seven new cases of COVID-19 counted Tuesday in Calaveras County. The new cases included two women and one man between 18 and 49 years old, two women and one man between 50 and 64, and one woman over age 65.

As of Tuesday afternoon, a total of 373 confirmed cases of COVID-19 had been counted in Calaveras, with 340 individuals recovered and 12 active cases. There have been 21 confirmed deaths related to COVID-19 counted in Calaveras County. 

There had been more than 977,200 cases of COVID-19 and 18,000 deaths in California as of Tuesday afternoon. Nationally, the pandemic had resulted in more than 10.2 million cases and contributed to the deaths of more than 239,350 Americans.

No-cost COVID-19 testing is available at Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora five days a week, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The test site offers testing for anyone age 3 and older, accompanied by a parent or guardian. Walk-in opportunities for testing are limited. Appointments can be scheduled ahead of time at www.lhicare.com/covidtesting online. Anyone who wants to be tested for COVID-19 can register online or call (888) 634-1123.

Local, state and federal public health authorities have warned this flu season could strain healthcare resources in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Getting a flu vaccine will not protect anyone against COVID-19, but it can reduce an individual’s risk of flu illness, hospitalization, and death.

Free flu shots are available at the Tuolumne County Health Department building at 20111 Cedar Road North, Sonora, 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays for anyone 2 and older. Face coverings are required, social distancing guidelines must be followed, and all visitors will be screened for symptoms of COVID-19. Public health staff urge anyone with questions to call (209) 533-7401.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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