How the pandemic divided the California county where 1 in 300 people died of COVID

The pandemic came late to Tuolumne County.

Health officials there logged cases as early as March 2020, but for all the work preparing for the sort of chaos playing out in New York City and elsewhere, it seemed to miss this picturesque county — “The Gateway to Yosemite” — located about 100 miles east of San Francisco.

The county’s public health department announced the first two deaths on July 27, though it wasn’t until much later that the novel coronavirus began to test the community. The pandemic would hit in three furious waves — one that winter, an unyielding delta wave (by far the deadliest) that stretched from summer to winter of 2021 and an omicron wave at the end of February 2022. By some estimates, the coronavirus has infected 1 in every 4 residents and, at latest count, killed 181 people, an enormous toll for a county of just 55,000 — about 1 in every 300, a figure roughly in line with the national death rate.

The pandemic would exact another toll, too. It would split the tight-knit community in two.

Highway 49 passes through downtown Sonora.

Max Whittaker/Special to The Chronicle

As the United States prepares to mark the grim milestone of 1 million dead from COVID-19, Tuolumne County offers a look at the national pandemic writ small. In many ways, what played out there is nothing unique. Nationwide, the pandemic sowed death and division. But in this county, nothing is abstract. The mother who lost her daughter knows most of the people who cared for her in the hospital. The man protesting mandates in downtown Sonora is the pastor at the church just a few miles away. The personal stakes are ever-present — even at meetings of the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors.

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