Adventist Health Sonora clinic

Dr. Stephanie Stuart (right), an ER physician at Adventist Health Sonora, administers the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to Paula Roland (left), of Soulsbyville, at an immunization clinic at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora on March 6.

Tuolumne County’s interim health officer is urging residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible if they haven’t already, with a recent spike in COVID-19 cases expected to continue and health care providers preparing for a peak sometime between late August and late September.

Dr. Eric Sergienko said during a weekly COVID-19 press briefing on Friday that this latest upswing also comes at a time when staffing in the healthcare system is at its lowest of any point in the pandemic that started early last year.

“With this decreased staffing, you may have available beds but no nurse or technician to be able to staff that bed,” he said. “That’s where the concern is with this recent increase in cases, and the potential hospital surge associated with it.”

No one at Adventist Health Sonora, the only hospital in Tuolumne County, was able to provide information about the hospital’s staffing levels upon request late Friday afternoon.

Sergienko noted that he does not believe the impending surge will be as bad as what some states farther east are currently experiencing, or like what the region experienced this past winter that forced some hospitals to send patients as far as Reno due to a lack of bed space.

Most of the county’s 73 deaths from COVID-19 to date occurred during the winter surge.

The county reported 18 new cases on Wednesday, which was the highest number for a single day by far since February. An additional 14 cases followed on Thursday, and Sergienko said the county Public Health Department had counted 10 more cases as of 10 a.m. Friday.

Five of the new cases on Friday were prisoners at Sierra Conservation Center near Jamestown who tested positive, as well as four of the 18 counted on Wednesday.

There were also four active cases among employees at the prison, which put out a statement Thursday saying that it was undertaking coordinated efforts to increase the frequency of testing inmates and staff, conduct contact tracing, and implement quarantine procedures to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Sergienko also revealed two currently active clusters of cases outside of the prison that came from an event at a local church roughly 10 days ago and an outbreak among employees of a business.

The names of the church and business were not disclosed for legal reasons. They had to consult with the county's legal advisors before saying what type of business.

Sergienko said the number of cases at the business was more than three but less than 20, though they were investigating the extent of the outbreak with Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency.

Meanwhile, the county’s vaccination rate has hovered around 50% or slightly below depending on which data you look at. The goal is at least 70% to gain the benefits of herd immunity. Nearly 62% of California’s total population is fully vaccinated.

Sergienko said he read a recent study about other predominantly conservative areas — 58% of Tuolumne County voters supported former Republican President Donald Trump in the last election that set local turnout records — that found 20% of people who were surveyed felt like they were being microchipped via the vaccine, a falsehood that’s been thoroughly debunked.

“That disinformation would be enough to dissuade people from getting vaccinated,” he said.

The vaccines causing infertility or interfering with pregnancy were also examples of disinformation that Sergienko said have been proven to be false.

There are other concerns people have that Sergienko acknowledged, such as unknowns about any long-term effects from the vaccines that were developed and produced at a record clip, though he said there have yet to be any negative consequences after about a year since trial studies began, which is when such effects from vaccines typically begin to appear.

“The adverse effects are generally very, very, very small in number and, again, they are outweighed by the benefits of the vaccine,” he said.

While the vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing infection, even less so against the now predominant and more-transmissible Delta variant, they have been proven to be nearly perfect when preventing serious illness as 99.5% of deaths and 97% of hospitalizations as of late are unvaccinated people.

Since the county began reporting the vaccination status of each new case on May 24, there had been 168 total infections as of Thursday and only 12 of those were fully vaccinated people.

Only two of the so-called “breakthrough” cases of vaccinated people in the county have ended up in the hospital, with one only for a brief time over a weekend.

Sergienko called getting the vaccine the "socially responsible thing to do" and encouraged anyone still skeptical to talk about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness with their health care provider.

County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who serves as board chairman, participated in Friday’s briefing and pleaded for people to not fall for what he described as a “concerted effort” to spread false information about the vaccine locally and throughout the United States.

“Believe your eyes and what you see around you and don’t believe people who are selling snake oil for their own self interest,” he said. “Public health has no other interest other than protecting and saving the lives of our community.”

Campbell expressed frustration about the county seemed to be getting a handle on it and is now sliding backward. The county's two-week running average of new cases per day was at 0.5 when the state lifted most COVID-related restrictions on June 15, but it was at 9.9 on Friday.

People can help by getting vaccinated and encouraging their friends and neighbors to do so, as well, Campbell said.

"Approximately, let's say 50% of our community has been vaccinated, and there have been no major impacts as a result of the vaccine," he said. "We need to look at that. People need to believe their eyes that we have had deaths and injuries and months-long illnesses related to COVID-19, but we've had none of that related to the vaccine."

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 768-5175.