Santa Cruz County Health Office Dr. Gail Newel
Santa Cruz County Health Office Dr. Gail Newel gave some updates on Wednesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County COVID watch: The latest from Newel about Delta, at-home testing, booster shots and more

Though COVID cases have slowed countywide, they are slightly up statewide, almost all coming from the highly contagious Delta variant, said public health officer Gail Newel. Since Santa Cruz stats have historically lagged three weeks behind the state data, local health officials are urging continuing caution and vigilance.

Statewide, there has been a significant uptick in daily coronavirus cases over the past week, most recently reported by the Los Angeles Times’ analysis.

But, according to County Health Officer Gail Newel at last Friday’s town hall with Zach Friend, Santa Cruz County has historically been trending three weeks behind the rest of the state. What does that mean for locals, and what could that mean moving forward?

Here are more answers to your questions about COVID-19’s trends here, and how to stay safe:

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What are the updates on Delta locally?

As of Wednesday the spread has slightly slowed countywide, but there is still a need for caution.

“The other variants just aren’t able to compete with Delta, but the good news is it doesn’t look like it’s any more lethal,” Newel said.

Last Friday showed a nearly 158% increase in 14-day average case counts, but that number has dropped to 64% as of Monday. The virus has largely continued spreading via community members and person-to-person, with 78.58% of the current cases having no known vector.

How many cases have been confirmed as the Delta variant in the county?

Dr. Saroj Bharatiya examines a COVID-19 patient inside Little Company of Mary Medical Center.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

There are currently 780 active known cases in the county, with the majority likely stemming from the Delta variant.

“With our last sequencing batch from the state, 23 out of 23 specimens were Delta,” said Newel.

As Newel noted last week, most people who get the variant feel better within three to five days of the start of symptoms, but it is unclear how long they remain contagious.

What are more of the specifics about the variant spread?

Compared to the novel coronavirus, Delta is much more easily transmittable — in fact, Newel estimated that the variant could be six to seven times more infectious.

Delta also presents differently than the novel coronavirus, and could appear to be just a common cold. Newel noted sneezing as the most common symptom for fully vaccinated persons with breakthrough cases, with sniffles, sore throat, and irritated eyes as additional signs of infection.

How are Santa Cruz County COVID-19 case rates compared to the rest of the state?

Santa Cruz County has had lower positivity rates and case rates than the rest of the state, which isn’t necessarily a reason to jump for joy (read below).

As of Friday, Santa Cruz County had a 5.3% positivity rate with the seven-day average, compared to the state’s 6.4%. The county also had 11.3 cases per 100,000 with a seven-day average, nearly half the state’s rate of 23.1.

Newel has said Santa Cruz lags behind other nearby counties’ COVID trends. How will that tentatively affect the upcoming surge?

Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito counties have all lagged behind other Bay Area and Southern California counties in relation to COVID trends, by about three weeks. With that, it’s likely a Delta variant and COVID-19 surge could last through mid to late October.

“This is not forever — no promises beyond that,” Newel said.

As data continues to come in, Newel and other officials will reassess further recommendations or regulations for Santa Cruzans.

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What happens if I think I might have been exposed or are experiencing symptoms?

Because the Delta variant is more infectious and more easily spread, the county recommends those experiencing symptoms to get tested and self-isolate. The county has stopped contract tracing because of both the difficulty of finding specific sources of infection as well as resistance from community members.

According to the California Department of Public Health, unvaccinated individuals who believe they have been exposed should test and self-quarantine, regardless of whether or not they are experiencing symptoms. Vaccinated individuals without symptoms don’t need to isolate, but should get tested three to five days after the potential exposure.

Where can I get a COVID test?

According to Santa Cruz Health, there are currently 17 testing sites countywide, with additional testing options at some CVS pharmacies and Walgreens on Soquel Avenue.

Hours and availability differ from location, with most testing sites restricting access and requiring advance appointments. Newel recommends calling ahead to best determine testing eligibility.

For those who wish to test at home, there are options to pick up testing kits at CVS, Rite Aid and Costco for $25. Unless there’s a follow-up PCR test to an at-home test, the county will not receive the result.

COVID-19 testing in Santa Cruz County in November 2020.

For people doing at-home COVID tests, are they reporting the data? If not, does that mean the case numbers could be substantially higher?

Many individuals doing at-home testing have not reported their negative or positive results to the county, leading county officials to believe there are more cases than officially reported.

As of now, the best indication of spread is the county Rt number, or the effective reproductive number. This statistic demonstrates how fast COVID-19 spreads within the community, and demonstrates a fairly significant spread once you get toward two infections per each positive case.

Compared to last week, the Rt has dipped slightly, with each case likely infecting 1.3 other persons. The county hopes to see this number drop below 1 as it did in early June.

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President Biden has now approved booster shots, beginning Sept. 20, for the fully vaccinated. What does that mean for locals, and how might that rollout look different?

Fortunately, vaccine supply is not an issue for Santa Cruz County, and likely will not present an issue come Sept. 20. However, as Newel said, the primary focus right now is for more vaccinations countywide, and especially among the under-30 population.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the additional dose for certain immunocompromised individuals. The county is directing those individuals to their providers for more information.

The booster will be offered to persons who received the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Health officials note that it’s best to get the booster approximately eight months after receiving the second vaccine.