Quick Take:

Now that the initial frenzy to book vaccine appointments has mostly subsided, health officials recommend getting the latest COVID booster before the holiday and cold and flu season commences. Additionally, workers in all health care facilities will be required to wear masks in patient care areas for the entirety of cold and flu season, from Nov. 1 to April 30.

Local health officials strongly recommend that eligible Santa Cruz County residents get their flu, COVID and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccines as we move toward cold and flu season. Starting Nov. 1 — considered the first day of the season — staff of health care facilities will be required to wear masks in patient care areas.

“This is the first year we haven’t had a public health emergency declared, which forwarded us some support from the federal and state governments,” said County Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez. “I think this is going to be a year to watch how our resources are moving forward.”

Local COVID hospitalizations have stabilized and even dropped slightly as we’ve reached the midpoint of fall. The latest data from Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency showed five patients hospitalized with COVID last week. Statewide, there were 1,942 patients hospitalized with COVID last week.

The latest state data shows that the county’s seven-day average positivity rate — a measure of the percentage of all tests that are positive — stood at 25.5%, up from about 14% in mid-September. That likely means that the majority of tests are administered to people who are already symptomatic, and that a higher percentage of these are yielding a positive result.

However, with holiday travel and large indoor gatherings on the horizon, Hernandez said she expects the typical winter surge of cases and severe disease to take hold in the coming weeks. She added that county wastewater data shows flu prevalence already beginning to tick up. Health care personnel will be required to mask in patient care areas for the entirety of cold and flu season, from Nov. 1 to April 30.

“This is the perfect time to get vaccinated, because you want to be protected when that time comes around, and it usually takes 10 to 14 days to get full protection,” said Hernandez.

The latest COVID boosters hit the shelves of local pharmacies at the end of September. Rather than a bivalent shot that targets both the original “wild” type of the virus and the current dominant variant, this iteration specifically targets Omicron subvariant XBB. 1.5., which is one of the most immune-evasive variants to date. That means prior boosters are likely less effective in protecting people from infection.

But the new booster should quash those concerns for the time being, even as a new variant — dubbed Eris — emerges as the dominant version of the virus, said Hernandez. She added that those receiving the booster should have strong protection against Eris, which is also a descendent of Omicron. The jab should also protect against severe disease and death.

“It does also seem like it reduces the amount of time that you’re shedding the virus,” she said, which means people are contagious for a shorter period of time. “You’re less likely to give it to other people, which has a big, big value.”

This is the first year that the COVID booster is not distributed through the federal government and offered to everyone at no cost to patients. Instead, distributors or third parties must purchase vaccine doses directly from the manufacturer. That can lead to costs north of $100. However, most private insurance will cover the booster, and the federal government’s Bridge Access Program will provide free doses to the uninsured, and to those whose insurance will not cover the costs of the doses.

Hernandez said she thinks that federal programs in place to provide access to free vaccines will keep cost from becoming a barrier for patients, and keep uptake high.

She added that a number of clinics within the county are offering free jabs through this program, including the Santa Cruz Health Center on Emeline Avenue, Santa Cruz Community Health, the Watsonville Health Center and Salud Para La Gente. She added that patients should also ask their pharmacies if they have signed up for the program, as they would offer free vaccines in that case, too.

The area’s major pharmacies, like Safeway, Walgreens and CVS, are all offering the booster. Horsnyder Pharmacy on Soquel Avenue offers walk-ins for the COVID, flu, and RSV vaccines Monday through Friday. Its sister store, Westside Pharmacy, will offer walk-ins on Fridays.

Both Horsnyder and Westside Pharmacy offer free COVID jabs. To receive a voucher, visit the eTrueNorth website here or call 800-635-8611.

FOR THE RECORD: This story has been updated to include additional information from Horsnyder and Westside Pharmacies.

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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...