Health Officer Gail Newel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

‘Hard month’ continues, but health officials hope vigilance, including mask upgrades, will make it end soon

“Cloth masks are no longer preferred,” Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel said Thursday. Instead, everyone should be upgrading to N95, KN95 and the increasingly popular KF94 models of face masks.

Santa Cruz County health officials announced new recommendations Thursday on masking protocols to fight the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

In a virtual news conference, Health Officer Gail Newel said the county is recommending that all local residents upgrade their masks to medical or surgical masks. “Cloth masks are no longer preferred,” said Newel, pointing instead to N95, KN95 and the increasingly popular KF94 models of face masks.

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In lieu of those specific masks, she suggested surgical masks combined with cloth masks, stressing snug fit as much as materials.

Dr. David Ghilarducci, deputy health officer, announced that the county’s COVID case tally has increased by more than 700 the past two days. “This is going to continue to be a hard month, perhaps the hardest yet,” he said. “But it will end soon.”

Ghilarducci said the county’s projection is that the case rate will probably peak in early February before declining. Still, he recommended that those with asymptomatic or mild cases of COVID-19 or other non-serious injuries or ailments avoid going to the emergency departments at Dominican Hospital or Watsonville Community Hospital.

“But if you do have a high fever, difficulty breathing, or other significant symptoms, you really should go the hospital right away,” he said.

County officials outlined the differences they have seen between the Omicron variant and the previous variants of the virus such as Delta. Given the infection rate of the latest variant, Health Services Agency assistant director Jen Herrera said, “it’s best to assume that you are interacting with people who are infectious, or that you yourself might be infectious and may not know it. People who are doing everything right may become positive.”

The county also announced an increase in capacity at testing sites such as Ramsay Park in Watsonville, Cabrillo College, the County Office of Education in Santa Cruz, and the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. County officials warn people to “exercise caution” in regard to unverified “pop-up” testing sites.

Newel acknowledged that Omicron’s spread might come to infect most of the population. Still, she warned against fatalism or an impulse to embrace infection for the sake of future immunity.

“We don’t want chicken-pox parties,” she said. “It may be inevitable that we will all get this, but we don’t have to get it right now. If we all got it right now, the health care system would be so overwhelmed that many lives would be lost unnecessarily.”

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