CVS has been selling out of rapid tests within the hour of receiving a shipment.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Bad news, good news: COVID cases spike, tests are hard to find ... but fewer serious illnesses with Omicron

As COVID cases surge, pharmacies and testing sites are being flooded by people hunting for tests. However, leading health officials agree with evidence that Omicron is less dangerous, particularly in vaccinated people.

On the inside of the automatic doors for its Westside store, CVS patrons are greeted with a yellow sheet of paper reading “WE ARE SOLD OUT OF COVID TEST” (sic) beneath a reminder to wear a mask.

A test shortage is rampant in Santa Cruz County, with essentially all pharmacies throughout the county posting similar signage. CruzMedMo, a fee-based tester that normally boasts of walk-in availability and no wait times, is now appointment only — with the earliest appointment available next Tuesday.

The spike in testing demand tracks with the exponential increase in COVID cases — about 2,000 active in Santa Cruz County, more than double from a week ago. But there is a silver lining: Hospitalizations are not increasing at nearly the same rate, leading health officials to conclude the Omicron variant is more contagious but less deadly, particularly among the fully vaccinated.

“If we had this many cases last winter, hospitalizations would be way higher than what we are currently seeing,” said Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci. “And when patients have needed hospitalization, fewer of them require ICU (intensive care unit) admission.”

Ghilarducci said that this is important, because ICU treatment is intensive for both the staff and patient, putting even greater strain on the health care system.

Additionally, Ghilarducci said there is an uptick in patients admitted for something non-COVID related who end up testing positive — something that is referred to as “incidental COVID.”

“Much more now, we’re seeing patients for an unrelated issue, testing them, and saying, ‘Oh, by the way, you have COVID’,” he said. “That makes up around 15% of those in the hospital with COVID as of now.”

Ghilarducci said the emerging data indicates Omicron tends to result in milder symptoms, because it does not appear to attack the lungs as much as previous variants. However, he says that should in no way diminish the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted.

“Those that are vaccinated are faring much better than those that are not,” he said. “The data is very clear.”

Sold-out signage at CVS pharmacy.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Compared to the previous winter surge — which started in November 2020 and went through the winter of 2021 — fewer people are being hospitalized, said Kevin Kimbrough, Dignity Health communications manager.

“We’re seeing more people presenting to the emergency department because of the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, but less people are being admitted to the hospital compared to last year,” he said. “At this point, we can’t say with 100% certainty why. While current COVID-19 patients are less likely to need ICU-level care than earlier in the pandemic, we are seeing a very high number of patients that continues to increase.”

County Health Public Information Officer Corinne Hyland highlighted another issue that the Omicron surge has caused: mildly ill patients flooding local hospitals.

“We are asking people to avoid the emergency room if they do not have the hallmark symptoms of severe COVID-19,” she said. “Rather, one should contact their health care providers from home to relieve an already strained ER staff.”

Hyland also said that while cases do seem to be milder, Omicron’s contagiousness is forcing many health care workers to isolate, further exacerbating staffing shortages.

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Hyland said the county office has also been discussing the need to upgrade masks due to Omicron’s transmissibility.

“Nothing has officially been put out yet, but we were just talking about it,” she said. “We’re planning to push the message of being well masked with KN95s, N95s, or double-masking as cases climb.”

CVS cashier Richard Stewart gets off the phone with someone asking about test availability.
(Max Chun / Lookout Santa Cruz)

On Friday, booster shots were officially approved for children aged 12-15 — an important step in keeping everyone safer.

The coming weeks might be hard, but Hyland and the rest of the public health division do not think that the surge will last much longer.

“We’re not at the peak yet, but it’s expected to occur in a matter of weeks,” she said. “We hope that holds true.”

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None of this, though, keeps people from continuing their hunt for tests.

Despite the signage, Mission Street CVS store manager Simon Ortiz says that it has done little to keep people from asking for tests.

“Many still come in often looking for tests,” he said. “We only get one shipment per week and they go super fast, we’ve had some lines like the ones outside of Apple stores.”

Ortiz also said that his store received a surprise shipment of rapid tests Wednesday, and sold out of them nearly immediately — about 300 tests within the first hour of opening.

“We took the sign down and essentially just had to put it right back up,” he said, adding that the location frequently runs out of vaccine doses as well. “I just wish we had more of everything.”