Quick Take:

COVID isn’t the only thing surging, as flu and RSV continue to make the rounds in Santa Cruz County. Those infections, coupled with a few years of lower exposure to common illnesses amid pandemic measures, have people crowding emergency rooms to seek tests for all three.

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Santa Cruz County hospitals are seeing record traffic at their emergency departments, likely spurred by what one local health official called “viral vacation,” or a prolonged period of lower exposure to common winter viruses like the flu after years of pandemic lockdowns and social distancing measures.

“Everybody has been on sort of a viral vacation for the past two or three years with the masking and distancing,” said Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci. “We have this big group of people that are catching viruses that they haven’t been exposed to ever before.”

On Monday, the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency recorded 842 active COVID-19 cases — a substantial leap from the previous week’s count of 607. That amounts to a 38% week-over-week increase. The true number of active cases might be even higher given the prevalence of home testing, which means many positive cases go unreported.

Though the increased COVID prevalence is significant, it isn’t even the disease circulating the most. The flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) have seen an even larger spike over the past month.

COVID numbers from Watsonville Community Hospital (WCH) reflect that trend. Though cases are up countywide, WCH’s COVID numbers are relatively low, currently showing a 3.7% positivity rate.

The flu is another story. What began as an already significant 14% positivity rate in the first week of November at WCH ballooned to a whopping 32% positivity rate as of last week. That tracks with the California Department of Public Health’s announcement Tuesday that statewide flu activity has increased from “moderate” to “high.”

Meanwhile, RSV is still presenting in high numbers, though it declined throughout November. What began as a 30% positivity rate in the first week of November at WCH fell to an 11.2% positivity rate last week.

Watsonville Community Hospital.
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Registered nurse Tammy Green, Dominican Hospital’s emergency-room manager, said the number of visits to Dominican’s ER has noticeably increased this year.

“This time last year we were seeing probably around 135 patients a day, and now we’re averaging about 167 and sometimes get very close to 200,” she said, adding that COVID, flu and RSV have a lot of overlapping symptoms. “On Monday, we saw 180 patients and 62 of those patients had those symptoms.”

Of those, she said, four were COVID-positive, 24 had the flu and only one had RSV. Overall, just one patient — one who tested positive for COVID — was admitted to the hospital.

“It seems as though a lot of people are coming in and asking to be tested, and their symptoms aren’t really extreme,” she said. “They just want to know what they’re supposed to do.”

Most of these people will be getting familiar advice, Green said.

“Whether it’s COVID or the flu, the instructions will be to go home, stay hydrated, rest and exercise your lungs,” she said.

The Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency is advising those with mild to moderate cases and other nonserious illnesses to avoid trips to local emergency rooms, so as to not further clog an already congested hospital system.

Registered nurse and Dominican Hospital disaster coordinator Paul Angelo said any reduction in visits from mildly ill patients would do the hospital a big favor.

“For people wanting to know something like whether they have the flu or COVID, that will be best handled by a private doctor or a clinic,” he said, adding that in emergency rooms, they will always be pushed to the back of the line in favor of attending to those with serious or life-threatening ailments. “Because in an ER, they’ll be waiting a long, long time.”

However, all of the experts agree: If your condition doesn’t improve, or symptoms like dizziness, unrelenting fever and shortness of breath persist, go to the hospital.

“If there’s any question that you’re seriously ill, then the emergency department is there to evaluate you right away,” said Ghilarducci. “Even if you’re wrong, that’s OK.”

Max Chun is the general-assignment correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Max’s position has pulled him in many different directions, seeing him cover development, COVID, the opioid crisis, labor, courts...