In virus hotspot, California deputy exemplifies COVID vaccine hesitancy

Lake County is the top spot for COVID spread in California.

Test positivity in the county of 65,000 people has shot up to 17 percent, compared to mid-June when it was just 1 percent.

"We have a house on fire," said Dr. Charlie Evans, Lake County Interim Public Health Officer, briefing county supervisors and expressing alarm about the delta variant. "Even if everyone got vaccinated tomorrow, we would still have more cases next week."

The county has reinstituted mask recommendations indoors for everyone, vaccinated or not.

"COVID-19 is looking for hosts, and if you're not vaccinated, I'm sure it will find you," continued Evans.

Vaccine hesitancy is a big factor in a rural county where only 52 percent of eligible residents have opted for the shot.

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That compares to a statewide rate of 63 percent, with Bay Area counties even higher.

"I thought I had allergies but within three days it turned into very high fevers," said Lake County Sheriff's Deputy Frank Gudmondson, who contracted COVID on June 27 while working in the county jail in Lakeport.

Despite precautions in place since last year, the jail, like the local community and the rest of the country, is seeing COVID cases rising among both inmates and staff.

MORE: California recommends masking indoors, regardless of vaccination status

"By July 4th I was in ICU," said Gudmondson, "and in ICU for 4 days. I went from 230 pounds down to 217 pounds."

Suffering from pneumonia, Gudmondson was put on a respirator.

But at 52, otherwise healthy and fit, he recovered and is now back at work.

He was - and is - unvaccinated and says his bout with COVID didn't change his thinking.

"I'm not saying I would never get it," said Gudmondson, "I'm just saying we need to see more research, it should be out on the market more and we should know what are the long term effects."

By state mandate, Gudmondson, like all jail and prison employees will soon have to be vaccinated or submit to regular COVID testing. 

"Some people are going to have a problem with it," admits Lake County Sheriff Brian Martin, "but those are the rules."

Like other elected officials, Martin traces the rise in COVID cases to the June 15 rollback of restrictions on social and business activities.

"We saw people going out and enjoying life again," said Martin.

And as for mask wearing in the community?

"I'd say it's about 50-50, both indoors and out."

Martin notes Lake County has a strong independent streak.

"I've had my vaccine but like a lot of people, I was a little bit skeptical," explained Martin.

"I don't necessarily believe what I hear on the news or from the government right away, I waited some time, until I felt it was safe for me."  

As Lake County's daily case rate reaches 50 per 100,000, highest in the state, Public Health is expanding vaccine availability.

A few drive-to options opened Wednesday, although almost all county clinics require appointments and locations and hours are limited.

A month out from COVID, Gudmondson still suffers from some brain fog and low energy. 

"I think the fatigue is probably the worst symptom of all," he said.

The father of four, grandfather to eight, says his family is relieved his case did not worsen.

Gudmondson believes Lake County's COVID rise comes from it being a small county, and very close-knit. 

"Everybody knows everybody and that's what our county is about," he declared. "And that's what we love about it, everybody is like one tight little family, so that exposure is going to get out."

Based on the trends, Lake County expects COVID transmission to return to its January peak as early as next week.