Dr. Richard Fleming: Correcting the record on Solano County’s COVID outcomes

Comparing Solano to Sonoma or to the entire Bay Area, Solano fared worse

[Dr. Fleming’s letter is addressing the editor of the Northbay Business Journal]

Richard Fleming, M.D., Benicia, CA

I am writing to clarify some inaccuracies in a Northbay Business Journal article by Jeff Quackenbush appearing on March 21 and comparing Sonoma and Solano Counties’ covid-19 responses and outcomes.

The article gave the impression that the two counties have had similar pandemic metrics, or even that Solano has done better than Sonoma as far as covid deaths. The article indicates this happened despite Solano following looser public health precautions than Sonoma.

The clear implication of the article is that stricter public health precautions have not yielded better outcomes during the pandemic.

In fact, data from the two counties, and from around the U.S., shows the opposite is true.

It is the case that Solano’s public health response was less strict than Sonoma’s. Actually, Solano’s response was less strict than the rest of the Bay Area. This was largely due to Public Health Officer Matyas tending to reject safeguards that every other Bay Area county public health officer were following.

Matyas opposed mask mandates for indoor public settings, claiming such mandates were ineffective because most viral spread occurred in private settings. In fact, there is widespread evidence of the effectiveness of masking in public, which is why there is an overwhelming consensus in support of mask mandates by public health experts. Communities with public mask mandates have fared better during the pandemic than communities without such mandates.

While Matyas has said vaccination is key to combatting the pandemic, the county could have done more to encourage vaccinations and make them readily available. Solano’s fully-vaccinated rate lags the rest of the Bay Area and is 70.5%, compared to 80% for Sonoma, according to state data (covid19.ca.gov/vaccination-progress-data/). Matyas states this is because Solano County is more like the Central Valley than the Bay Area. This appears to blame county residents for the relatively low vaccination rate, when public health leadership could have done more to encourage vaccinations.

In an official county video from early in the pandemic, Matyas states, “The problem is that people are overreading the (public health) orders, they’re overreacting…” (This video was taken down a few days after it was posted.) twitter.com/openvallejo/status/1241503281832058882

What did Solano’s looser approach to covid-19 lead to? It has had the worst outcomes of any county in the Bay Area. Even compared to Sonoma, Solano has done worse. According to the California Open Data Portal, Solano’s case rate is 11% higher than Sonoma’s, and its death rate is 4% higher (abc7news.com/feature/coronavirus-cases-covid-19-map-bay-area-covid/9891245/). The claim that the two counties have had similar outcomes is contradicted by the data.

Throughout the U.S., counties which have done less to follow the science around covid-19 prevention have suffered worse outcomes. The virus does not behave differently in the North Bay than in other areas of the country. We should all know that by now.

Lastly, Quackenbush’s article closed with Matyas saying, “I couldn’t care less about schools. Yes, a lot of children test positive, but they mostly have brought it from home, and they are not effective in spreading it.” Here too, the actual data shows a very different picture. A recent CDC study from Arkansas showed that school districts with mask mandates have 23% fewer covid cases among students and staff than districts without such mandates. While it is true that children are less likely than older people to get sick, the data clearly shows they can spread it to other, more vulnerable people. And we should keep in mind that over 1,000 children have died from covid-19 so far. Covid-19’s adverse impact in the schools should be an issue that all county public health officers care about.

Richard Fleming, M.D.
Benicia, CA