Push to get Sonoma County students vaccinated

As Sonoma County begins bringing students back into classrooms, a push is on to get more of them vaccinated.

"I'm feeling more safe," said Diana Cruz, 16, entering her junior year at Roseland University Prep in Santa Rosa. "If I get COVID, and hopefully not, it won't hit me as hard as if I was unvaccinated."

Cruz was among dozens of students, staff and parents vaccinated Tuesday at Roseland Accelerated Middle School.

Wednesday is the first day of school for the Roseland District, located in southwest Santa Rosa.

Other Sonoma County districts will begin their school year over the next week as well.

An earlier effort among educators vaccinated more than 10,000 teachers and staff, from preschool to college level.

Among eligible students, about 55 percent are fully vaccinated so far.

Ten clinics held during the past two weeks targeted zip codes with the lowest COVID protection.

"The goal is to reach 70 percent before school starts and I don't know if we're going to reach such a lofty goal but we're trying really hard," said Jeff Harding, a former  superintendent at several Bay Area school districts who left retirement to assist Sonoma County during the pandemic.

Harding notes last year’s remote learning and social distance have given way to full in-person classrooms, where masks, testing and contact tracing are the safeguards.   

He is encouraged by strong turnout at recent clinics, driven by fear of the delta variant, and vigorous outreach to school communities.

At a clinic Tuesday, a student-teacher was moved to tears as she received her shot.

"It was the thought of being back in a classroom with students, unvaccinated, the combination of emotions- fear and relief I think," said Harding.   

Roseland Public Schools, with about 3000 students across six campuses, is a telling environment to test new protocols.

About 92 percent of the student community is Latin-x, a demographic that makes up about one-third of Sonoma County's population, but more than 60% of COVID cases.

"We have to be optimistic, prepare for the worst but expect the best," said Roseland Superintendent Hector Rico, at the middle-school clinic.

"That's why it's important to have vaccination here, someplace they trust, it takes one layer of the unfamiliar away and they feel a little more at home."

Some counties, such as neighboring Marin, are requiring teachers to either be vaccinated or submit to regularly testing.

Sonoma County has not gone that far.

"That may be a direction we may go but we need many more discussions about that," said Rico.

Tuesday evening, an online briefing provided details and answered questions about the upcoming school year.

"What will happen if there is an outbreak at a school?", was one of the parent questions submitted to a panel of education and health officials. 

Families were assured that mandatory indoor masking for all will provide safeguards.

"We have seen that schools can be a very safe space for children, there is not a lot of transmission occurring at school sites," said Dr. Urmila Shende, the county's vaccine chief.

Added a public health nurse, "if we have one or two cases in a classroom, we do not necessarily close the classroom and we definitely don't close the entire school."

Under state guidelines, if everyone an infected person came in contact with was masked, they could continue coming to class as long as they have no symptoms, are tested twice-weekly, and continue to mask.

But if symptoms emerge, home quarantine becomes the default.  

"I feel like there are going to be more shut-downs, and it's going to get worse, because some people don't listen," said Olivia Mendoza, 12, who overcame her fear of needles to get her first shot at the school clinic. 

"Because it's getting serious, people are dying and I'm just seeing families sad that they lost someone over this disease," said Mendoza.

Her older sister Virginia, 13, was vaccinated alongside her, as their dad Lucio watched, but declined to do so himself.

"I am waiting for the vaccines to get full approval," said the father, "but I stand behind them 100 percent, what they believe in their hearts and minds are in the right place, so I support them getting it."

At the briefing, officials said COVID is spreading five times as much among unvaccinated people as the vaccinated.

Sonoma County has administered 634,000 doses, amounting to an overall vaccination rate of 79 percent, including those awaiting a second shot.

Currently there are 71 people hospitalized in Sonoma County, with 22 deaths during the past two months.

"We are seeing some of the worst outcomes with this new variant," said Dr. Shende, "which is aggressive, contagious and relentless."