A community Christmas tree overlooks Beer Can Beach in Rio Del Mar.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID Today

Omicron, boosters and the local response during the holidays

While healthcare providers say they’re prepared for a potential surge of cases due to Omicron, they say the data thus far may suggest fewer severe cases and hospitalizations. They continue to urge the public to get vaccinated and boosted, even with prolonged wait times.

Saying they are expecting an “explosion in cases” due to the Omicron variant as early as mid-January, Santa Cruz County health officials say there is increased urgency for people to be vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 — though wait times for the shots are similar to what they were prior to its arrival.

However, officials point to recent evidence that Omicron, while considerably more transmissible than Delta, could lead to fewer severe cases and hospitalizations.

Questions regarding specific plans to ramp up vaccination availability, if any, were not answered by providers this week. Calls and emails to those with the likely answers to those questions found that the people involved were not in the office due to the holiday or vacations.

San Francisco Health Director Grant Colfax presented data recently showing that a booster dramatically increases protection against the virus as immunity from the original shots wanes over time.

A booster shot results in “a dramatic increase in improvement with regard to ... protecting against hospitalization — 91% — nearly the level it was with Delta,” Colfax said.

Local booster data

Based on the most recent data, as of Tuesday, 60,245 Santa Cruz County residents have received booster shots. When broken down by age, that comes out to 48% of the population 65 and older, 33% of those aged 50-65, and 15% of those 18 to 49.

Wait times have remained the same as they have been for the better part of a month — about two weeks. Click here for a list of providers, links and shot availability.

For those willing to make the drive to Salinas, Watsonville or San Jose appointments are available as soon as Dec. 28 through CVS pharmacy.

Dr. David Ghilarducci, deputy health officer for Santa Cruz County, likened Omicron’s heightened transmissibility to measles, saying it is one of the most contagious viruses scientists have found.

He added that while Omicron infections are much less likely to need hospitalization than those from Delta, the latest variant still has the potential to overwhelm local hospitals.

Delta doesn’t have a chance against Omicron. And so we’re expecting to see an explosion in cases.

“Delta doesn’t have a chance against Omicron,” Ghilarducci said. “And so we’re expecting to see an explosion in cases.”

However, he said, it is thus far unclear how the variant could affect hospitalization rates, because Omicron was detected in the U.S. only a few weeks ago.

“We’re only able to sample a small fraction of the tests that come in,” Ghilarducci said. “We would have no reason to think that [results indicating the Omicron variant in] Santa Cruz County would be any lower than what we’re seeing statewide, which is around 50%.”

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Omicron’s local impact

Local health providers are exercising caution about the new variant’s potential impact even as they await further data on its effects on community members — vaccinated, boosted or unvaccinated.

“The symptoms aren’t as severe maybe as Delta, but they’re all similar — at the beginning, we can’t really tell the difference,” said Paul Angelo, emergency disaster management coordinator for Dominican Hospital. “There’s so much mixed data right now, but they’re still running so many tests, it’s difficult to tell what is true.”

Angelo noted that Omicron cases appear to “spike rapidly and disappear rapidly,” meaning time is of the essence for those needing a vaccine or a booster.

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However, he said Dominican will not be holding its weekly vaccine clinics until after the new year. He suggested people concerned about getting a booster more quickly turn to the local pharmacies and supermarkets providing them.

“We’re certainly not sure how quickly this could come on — since there are cases already in the county, it could start hitting people earlier,” he said.

Still, Angelo told Lookout his team is ready for the surge washing over California, and that there is no supply-chain issue for the shots regionally or statewide.

“We’ve remained at a certain level of readiness throughout the pandemic, so we haven’t stepped down our internal response, we’ve only downsized it, depending upon the types of surge status we’re in,” he said.

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Angelo noted that Dominican has regular meetings with other health providers and with the county’s public health office about data and trends surrounding COVID-19 — something also practiced by Kaiser Permanente’s teams in the greater Bay Area.

“This has all happened very rapidly over the last month,” said Michael Vollmer, a Kaiser infectious disease expert. “We’ve made sure that our system was aware of the potential for a big winter surge of disease weeks ahead of time.”

Angelo believes Dominican is prepared for a surge that could peak in mid-January or early February, especially after fighting the pandemic for the past 20 months. The state has provided additional support to help with staffing shortages, and Angelo’s team has been able to respond more nimbly and rapidly to potential case upticks.

Currently, Angelo said that individuals who have received a booster within the past three to four months have a certain level of protection against the new variant — noting that most cases at the moment are mild.

There have still been more breakthrough infections attributed to Omicron compared to previous variants, but Angelo noted that boosters, vaccinations and masking are great lines of defense.

“If you’re doing the best you can and still get it, it’s not your fault … we all can feel that way,” he said.

If you do feel sick, Angelo encouraged individuals to isolate until the symptoms dissipate to lower potential spread.

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“Still wear the mask, do all the protection, as if you weren’t completely vaccinated,” he said. “There’s still a lot of stuff unknown about this, but people already know what they should be doing. Do all the things to keep yourself and your family safe.”