There’s some good news on the Covid-19 front for Santa Cruz County, local health officials said in a press conference Thursday.
“It appears Santa Cruz County has joined the state of California in the downward side of our holiday surge,” Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said. The community is “still suffering from way too many deaths,” largely as a result of holiday gatherings, she said, but the surge seems to now be on a downward trend.
This week, the county dropped from a previous Covid-19 case rate of 71 per day per 100,000 people to 47 per day per 100,000 people.
“That is a remarkable decrease,” Newel said.
There is evidence throughout the community of decreased disease spread, she added, and even testing sites are reporting the demand for testing is dropping.
With the state’s return this week to county-level restrictions on what can be open, Santa Cruz County is one of many that landed back in the Purple Tier. That allowed some business operations, like outdoor dining, to resume immediately.
Newel cautioned that people shouldn’t get too excited, since the current case rate of 47 per day per 100,000 people is still far from the rate of five per day per 100,000 people that would be needed to enter the Red Tier and ease up further on restrictions. The county would have to reach that lower case rate for several weeks to have more reopenings.
Newel predicted the county might not hit that threshold until late spring or summer. She asked that residents enjoy the relative freedoms of the Purple Tier while remaining vigilant about behaviors like wearing a mask and social distancing to help slow the spread of Covid-19.
Those practices are needed even among people who have been vaccinated, she said, since there isn’t enough known yet about whether people who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus, especially with the new variants emerging.
Vaccinations Coming Next to People 65 and Older
Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci delivered promising news on the vaccination front, saying the county is in the end stages of completing Phase 1A of its vaccine distribution plan, which includes health care workers and residents of assisted living facilities.
Vaccinations are now happening for Phase 1B, with a focus first on people age 75 and older. There aren’t enough vaccine doses yet to expand to people age 65 and older, Ghilarducci said, so the county is concentrating on the older population since the risk of serious disease or death from Covid-19 goes up with age. Some 84% of Covid-19 deaths in the county have been in the 70 and older age group, Ghilarducci said.
“The intent here is to save as many lives as possible with the scarce amount of vaccine that we have,” Ghilarducci said.
The county started vaccinating people age 75 and up from certain zip codes at its new mass drive-thru vaccination clinic at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds this week, giving more than 1,100 vaccinations already. Ghilarducci called it a “tremendously successful” effort, even in light of weather challenges from rain and wind.
Health officials estimated they will have reached 65-70% of the 75 and up age group with vaccinations by the end of next week. That falls within the 50-80% acceptance rate for the vaccine that they’re seeing so far among any given population, Newel said. The plan is to start vaccinating people age 65 and up after the 75 and up group.
Focus on Equity
The county is receiving around 1,800-2,000 vaccines weekly on average at this point, Ghilarducci said, but the variability from week to week presents challenges for planning clinics.
The county’s goal is to sustain at least one drive-thru clinic per week at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, officials said. The clinics should start happening weekly on Wednesdays starting Feb. 10, targeting people in zip codes that have been hit hardest by Covid-19.
The zip code system is based on data about who is most impacted and who is most likely to suffer serious hospitalization and death from Covid-19, Santa Cruz County Health Services Director Mimi Hall said.
One barrier to the vaccine rollout is that the registration site for the drive-thru clinic is not available in Spanish, Hall noted. Hall said the county is told the state will soon launch its vaccine site, myturn.ca.gov, in multiple languages, making vaccination appointments more accessible to people who don’t speak English. The county decided to proceed with a registration site in partnership with Safeway, rather than continue waiting on the state site.
The role of the local health jurisdiction is to prioritize vaccines for populations not covered by the Federal Pharmacy Partnership program or by large health plans like Dignity Health, Sutter Health, and Kaiser Permanente, Hall explained. They are doing that by looking at the positivity rate of Covid-19 test results coming from census tracts that have “low health conditions” as determined by the state’s Healthy Places Index. Many of the county areas lowest on that index are in Watsonville, along with a few spots in Mid- and North County.
That means the majority of local health jurisdiction vaccines are going to federally qualified health centers that serve those populations, with people who are often uninsured or under-insured.
If the county is going to reduce death and hospitalization, it has to start with distributing vaccines to those most affected, Hall said.
County health officials are receiving many questions from residents about how to register for a vaccine, Hall said. The state had promised a statewide registration site that county officials thought would be active more than a month ago, she said. Currently, people can use myturn.ca.gov to register for a notification about when they become eligible for vaccination.