Quick Take:

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The What: Santa Cruz County’s COVID-19 positivity rate is increasing after showing a downward trend in recent weeks. The 14-day average has increased by 12%, according to county data, and the death toll is now 228.

The So What: Officials caution that this trend may actually be worse than reported, noting fewer tests are being officially reported. This is partly due to a marked increase in at-home testing.

They warn the Omicron variant is likely to cause a significant increase in cases, and the county reported its first cases earlier this month. The breakdown of cases by variant is not known, as county officials have not sequenced all known positive cases.

How Santa Cruz County compares: The county is currently in the red tier, indicating a high level of infectious spread. This level is the same as most of its neighbors in Northern and Central California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though Monterey County, has recently entered the orange tier, one down from red. The state as a whole is also currently in the red tier.

As of Dec. 26, 71.04% of Santa Cruz County residents were fully vaccinated, a slight increase from the week prior. This is just a touch higher than the statewide figure of 70.8%.

Neighboring Santa Clara and San Mateo counties had a fully vaccinated rate of 81.3% and 78.7%, respectively. Marin County was at 84.2%, the highest rate in the state.

However, as Lookout reported on Dec. 10, a quirk in the state reporting figures may be artificially reducing that number. Raw data for ZIP code 95064 — home to UC Santa Cruz — shows fewer than 20% of the more than 10,000 official residents in that area have been vaccinated.

But UCSC stats show more than 95% of students — who would be the primary residents on campus — have been vaccinated. Using this figure instead increases the overall county vaccination rate by nearly 5%. This, in turns, puts it much more in line with neighboring counties.

Asked about this, county spokesperson Jason Hoppin has pointed to previous statements from health officials about why this might occur — people traveling across county lines for a vaccine, for example. Still, he said, “given the continued level of asymptomatic transmission, a population-wide vaccine percentage is really not an indication of health or safety any longer.”

“The best indication of health and safety as whether the individual has been vaccinated, period,” said Hoppin.

Current cases, hospitalizations and deaths: As of Wednesday, Santa Cruz County has 753 active COVID-19 cases, a substantial increase of 172 from the prior week. Other than the first two confirmed cases of Omicron, no more have been officially announced, although it is likely that at least some of the new cases can be attributed to the spread of Omicron.

“We can presume that most, if not all of these cases are Omicron, since we’re not sequencing all of them,” said county spokesperson Jason Hoppin. “At this point we assume the variant is spreading quickly within Santa Cruz County. So that just brings up the core issues of getting tested, getting boosted, and wearing a mask.”

A total of 18 people are hospitalized, up four from a week ago according to Hoppin. Two patients are in ICU. Hoppin added that the hospitals treating the patients have said that the vast majority of the patients are either unvaccinated or have not received a booster.

County officials announced Monday that the 228th Santa Cruz resident had died of COVID-19 or related complications since the start of the pandemic, up by one from a week ago.

COVID-19 patients are treated at either Dominican Hospital or Watsonville Community Hospital. Neither establishment responded to questions regarding this week’s updates.

However, last week Kevin Kimbrough, spokesperson for Dominican, said of the 13 patients at the facility, seven were unvaccinated, six had received the single Johnson & Johnson shot or two of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and none had received a booster shot. Of those hospitalized at Dominican, eight were newly admitted since last week.

Watsonville Community Hospital officials have not responded regarding hospitalizations at its facility. In addition, though county data is normally updated twice weekly, many of the figures below are from Dec. 20 — the last day the figures have been updated, likely due to the holiday.

Change in rate of infections: When the mask mandate was reestablished on Sept. 29 — after being removed in August — county health officials said the turnaround was due to a surge in local cases and hospitalizations.

Last week, Deputy Health Officer David Ghilarducci said that at-home COVID-19 testing has made it difficult for officials to track results.

On Wednesday, Hoppin elaborated on the process.

“We use a three-week period to count the case,” he said. “So if we get a case on the dashboard, it automatically comes off after three weeks. It’s kind of arbitrary but it’s the best we can do because we can’t call all the cases every day asking if they feel better.”

Additionally, Hoppin said that the case count on the county dashboard is likely an undercount because of the increase in at home testing.

“With all the at home testing, there’s no way to report it,” he said. “If someone does not feel like they need medical care they probably won’t come in for a PCR confirmation, although we do encourage everyone to do that if they test positive with an at home test.”

Health officials track whether the case rate is increasing or decreasing by looking at a 14-day rolling average. This figure had been decreasing — and even going into negative figures — but jumped to a current rate of +12%.

Data from Dec. 29, 2021
Data from Dec. 29, 2021 Credit: Source: Santa Cruz County public health
Overall COVID cases by region - Dec. 20
Data from Dec. 26 Credit: Source: Santa Cruz County public health

Geographic breakdown: Overall, South County has seen a high number of cases compared to other regions. In particular, Watsonville has had 43.18% of the total number of cases despite comprising 18.3% of the overall population, going a long way toward explaining why the region has seen more than half of the county’s total cases.

When looking at the current cases, the caseload in Santa Cruz has surpassed that of Watsonville — about 37% of the total.

Active cases by region - Dec. 26
Data from Dec. 20, 2021 Credit: Source: Santa Cruz County public health

Officials continue to urge residents to wear masks and make COVID-19 booster vaccination appointments in anticipation of a surge of Omicron cases.

Wait times to make an appointment at local pharmacies are about two weeks out. For those willing to make the drive to Salinas or Marina, appointments are available as soon as Jan. 3 through CVS pharmacy.

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