Coronavirus

Updated: Memorial Day Weekend Presents Covid Test Case for Santa Cruz

When the county will open up and how hospitals are coping

Robust testing is key to containing the coronavirus. PHOTO: DENNIS MOYNIHAN, QUEST DIAGNOSTICS

This story was updated at 12:20pm on Tuesday, May 26, with information from the three-day weekend.

The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and Memorial Day Weekend is now behind us.

But when it comes to containing the Covid-19 pandemic, the traditional fun in the sun presented a worst-case scenario, explains Dr. Gail Newel, the public health officer for Santa Cruz County, where beaches have been partially closed for weeks.

“Of course, we’re concerned about beaches, and we’re concerned about tourism during the warmer summer months, which traditionally brings huge crowds into the Santa Cruz County area,” Newel said at a press conference Thursday, May 21. She added that she and her colleagues considered closing the beaches altogether over Memorial Day Weekend.

Beaches are still closed countywide from 11am-5pm to walkers and joggers. They remain open for surfing, swimming and water activities. The beaches are closed at all hours for lounging, sitting, barbecues and parties. Beachgoers must keep six feet from one another at all times. In consultation with law enforcement, county leaders and local city officials, Newel decided not to enact a full closure on county beaches this weekend, like she did over the week of Easter.

The stakes were high over Memorial Day Weekend, with the Fourth of July weekend hanging in the balance. “If it goes really well, we might be able to keep things open for Fourth of July,” Newel said last week. 

It did not go well. Although it was more low-key than previous Memorial Days, groups still crowded onto the beaches, toting large chairs and ignoring the lounging ban. Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Ashley Keehn says sheriff’s deputies made contact with 2,240 individuals or groups on the beaches over the three-day weekend. They issued 15 shelter-in-place citations and 107 parking citations. Parking citations were mostly on the North Coast, Keehn says, where deputies saw large crowds of beachgoers. 

“I know that tourism is a huge part of our culture and our economy,” Newel said last week, “but that is perhaps our greatest danger from a disease perspective. The governor’s stay-at-home order is still very much in place, and Californians are expected to remain local in their own homes and communities until the governor relaxes those, which will be probably many weeks or months in the future, if not longer. It’s a very important part of disease control to control non-essential travel, including that for tourism.”

There have been 200 known Covid-19 cases in Santa Cruz County, according to information provided Monday evening by county health officials. Two people in the county have died from Covid-19, and 133 have recovered. The case count has been climbing more quickly over the past two weeks, and county officials have announced four new clusters of cases in the Watsonville area. Statewide as of Sunday, there have been 94,558 Covid-19 cases and 3,795 deaths, according to the California Department of Public Health

FOR VARIANCE REASONS

Like most of California, Santa Cruz County is getting ready to continue proceeding with its coronavirus response and reopenings. Last week, Newel said she’ll issue a revised version of her shelter-in-place order that would go into effect at 11:59pm on Tuesday, May 26. As of press time, she had not made any announcements.

Aligning with state guidelines, the new order will allow for the opening of more businesses. That includes office spaces, car washes, pet grooming, and expanded childcare, as well as outdoor museums and open galleries in public spaces—all with modifications. California is currently in stage two of its four-stage reopening strategy. On Monday, May 25, Gov. Gavin Newsom paved the way for more operations to resume, including churches and in-person retail.

Also, Santa Cruz County is getting ready to file an attestation and apply for a variance, allowing the county to enter a more advanced portion of stage two, said Mimi Hall, director of the county Health Services Agency (HSA).

Earlier this month, the HSA did not meet the contact tracing and testing requirements necessary to qualify for a variance. Last week, the state of California loosened the requirements. As a result, Santa Cruz County now meets them. Hall said HSA administrators plan to submit the needed paperwork for the variance to the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, June 2, for a vote. The variance would additionally need approval from the California Department of Public Health before taking effect.

If approved, the variance would allow for the opening of shopping malls, swap meets, in-restaurant dining and schools—all with modifications. The county does not have the authority to open up additional sectors of the economy.

“Many people have questions about lots of other items, such as personal services and movie theaters,” Hall said. “None of those are currently in stage two of the state. They’re all in stage three, and our health officer does not have the ability to open those up before the state.”

Santa Cruz County now has robust enough testing to proceed with more reopenings, but the county is still ramping up test capacity toward where Hall and Newel say it needs it to be. Hall said the goal is for everyone in the county to be able to get a test, whether they are symptomatic or not.

Hall also said that the county will soon quadruple the size of the contact tracing team to 60 contact tracers over the next month. The contact tracing team follows cases of Covid-19 and works to contain its spread. 

PROTECTIVE MEASURES

Local supplies of personal protective equipment are mostly quite strong.

Local hospitals now have 30-day supplies built up, Hall said, and skilled nursing facilities all have two weeks’ worth of supplies. The county, she added, has been getting big shipments of nasopharyngeal swabs—5,000 at a time, which is welcome news, as they are essential for testing.

However, Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci said the county’s supply of gowns is low. Supplies became especially constrained, he said, once dentists returned to work and started requesting gowns from the HSA.

“We just don’t have them, and they’re not available,” he said. “I’m going to publicly ask all of our healthcare providers, to the extent possible, to obtain linen-type gowns or reusable gowns that can be laundered. Obviously, disposable gowns are the standard way of doing this, but they’re just in short supply.”

The county does take in some shipments of gowns, which the HSA distributes, Ghilarducci said, but dentists are at a lower priority right now for receiving them. He understands dentists have concerns about risk of exposure, given that they reach into the mouths of their patients, although he noted that offices should be screening patients ahead of time.

Ghilarducci added that some local firefighters have discovered a “reasonable substitute” by wearing rain jackets and then decontaminating them once they’re done using them.

PUT A RING ON IT

County Spokesperson Jason Hoppin says that if someone spots anyone who they believe to be violating the county’s health orders, they should call the county’s coronavirus call center at 831-454-4242.

County Spokesperson Jason Hoppin says that, if someone spots anyone who they believe to be violating the county’s health orders, they should call the county’s coronavirus call center at 831-454-4242.

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