COVID TODAY: State officials highlight ‘rays of hope,’ Newel not as optimistic

A vaccine does is administered
(UC Davis Health)

The news you need to know today about COVID-19 in Santa Cruz County, including deaths, hospitalizations, positivity rate and vaccine updates.

4:15 p.m.: California hit an eye-popping milestone Tuesday, reporting more than 3 million total coronavirus cases statewide since the pandemic began last spring, according to a case count by the LA Times, a Lookout content partner.

But state health officials said during a news conference that they see “rays of hope” as the transmission rate of the virus has come down some.

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In Santa Cruz County, virtually all COVID-19 statistics improved slightly Tuesday, but county Health Officer Gail Newel described the improvements as minuscule at best.

She told Lookout that the county recorded 320 new cases in a 24-hour period over the weekend — a record — and that officials are “waiting for that spike in cases to hit the hospitals.”

Newel said the county is still very much in throes of the “Christmas and New Year’s surge,” and that hospital ICUs here likely will fill up even more. There were 79 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Santa Cruz County as of Tuesday with 12 of them in the ICU. State data showed zero ICU beds available in Santa Cruz County, though that number can fluctuate rapidly.

The Bay Area region’s ICU bed availability capacity stood at 7.4% on Tuesday, up from 3.4% on Friday. The region includes Santa Cruz County.

The state situation

“The good news is that we’re in a posture where the spread of COVID is not growing in the state, but decreasing, just a little more slowly than we would like,” said California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly.

Hospitalizations statewide decreased “for the first time in quite some time,” dropping 8.5% in the last two weeks to 20,262, according to Ghaly. ICU hospitalizations related to COVID-19 have also seen a drop, decreasing 2.8% over the last 7 days to 4,693 across the state.

“These are rays of hope shining through with the hospitals coming down some, and that overall curve of our case numbers beginning to flatten,” Ghaly said.

Still, the 3-million mark means about 1 out of every 13 Californians have been infected with the virus at some point. More than 33,700 Californians have died from COVID-19 so far.

New strains of the virus have also caught the eye of public health officials, including a highly contagious variant first identified in the United Kingdom. One other new strain has been identified in a dozen counties — including neighboring Monterey County — and has been linked to several large outbreaks in Santa Clara County, which also is adjacent to Santa Cruz County.

Officials are still working to determine how broad the new variant — linked to the Santa Clara outbreaks — is across the state and what its impacts are on infectiousness and severity of the disease, Dr. Ghaly said.

The county situation

A look at the latest numbers countywide:

Active cases: The county had 2,810 current active cases of the virus as of Tuesday, down from a total of 3,017 on Friday. Since the pandemic began, there have been 12,275 cases of COVID-19 recorded in Santa Cruz County.

Positivity rate: Santa Cruz County’s 14-day average positivity rate is 17.5%, down slightly from Friday’s value of 18.6% — but still much higher than the average value across all California counties, which is just 11.6%.

Deaths: No new deaths were reported Tuesday, with the county’s death toll remaining at 113. This doesn’t mean no new deaths have occurred, just that the records haven’t yet been released to the county.

Hospitalizations: There were 79 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Santa Cruz County as of Tuesday with 12 of them in the ICU. State data showed zero ICU beds available in Santa Cruz County. It is important to note that this number changes rapidly as people move in and out of the ICU, and is also highly dependent on staffing. The Bay Area regional ICU capacity is currently 7.4%, and the stay-at-home order remains in effect.

Jan. 18


5 p.m.: Kaiser Permanente told Lookout Monday evening that it, too, had administered doses of the Moderna vaccine from lot 41L20A, which has now been paused as state health officials investigate possible allergic reactions from the vaccine. Spokesperson Karl Sonkin said in a statement that the hospital system had “not recorded any severe adverse reactions in patients who received vaccine from this lot.” But the health system has paused the rollout of the vaccine from this lot, in accordance with state recommendations.

“While all vaccine supply is extremely limited, this situation only affects a relatively small percentage of our supply,” Sonkin wrote.

Vaccine appointments through Kaiser Permanente will be rescheduled, and members will be notified, as the hospital system "(monitors) information provided by the manufacturer, CDPH, the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.”

Lookout has not yet heard back from requests for information from Sutter Health/ PAMF about this issue.

1:30 p.m.: Dignity Health has administered doses of the 41L20A lot of the Moderna vaccine, the hospital system told Lookout this afternoon. In a statement, Dominican Hospital President Dr. Nanette Mickiewicz said the hospital had “not documented any significant reactions during our COVID-19 vaccine distribution, including the doses of Moderna lot 41L20A we have administered. That said, in accordance with the guidance from CDPH, we have paused all administration of Moderna vaccines from that lot indefinitely.”

11 a.m.: About 5,300 doses of Santa Cruz County’s vaccine inventory are from lot 41L20A of the Moderna vaccine — the same lot that state health officials put “on pause” Sunday night due to a higher-than-usual number of possible allergic reactions that are under investigation.

That means 64% of the remaining 8,210 Moderna doses that were to be distributed in Santa Cruz County will have to remain in storage for now. None of the 5,300 41L20A doses had yet to be distributed here, Santa Cruz County spokesperson Jason Hoppin told Lookout Monday.

“We’re told the pause is ‘brief,’” he wrote in an email. It is unclear how this will impact the already sluggish distribution of the vaccine both here and elsewhere.

As of last Friday, the county had received a total of 6,825 Pfizer doses and 9,900 Moderna doses. Only slightly more than 5,300 doses have been distributed overall.

Statewide, more than 330,000 doses from this lot have been distributed to 287 providers across the state. That amounts to about 10% of the vaccine shipped to California overall.

The apparent allergic reactions occurred in Southern California, the LA Times reported.

“A higher-than-usual number of possible allergic reactions were reported with a specific lot of Moderna vaccine administered at one community vaccination clinic. Fewer than 10 individuals required medical attention over the span of 24 hours,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan in a statement. “Out of an extreme abundance of caution and also recognizing the extremely limited supply of vaccine, we are recommending that providers use other available vaccine inventory and pause the administration of vaccines from Moderna Lot 041L20A until the investigation by the CDC, FDA, Moderna and the state is complete. We will provide an update as we learn more.”

Lookout Santa Cruz is reaching out to the major health systems in Santa Cruz County to find out how many doses of the paused Moderna lot might have been sent to them.

— Tulsi Kamath

6:30 a.m.: A COVID-19 variant has been linked to “multiple outbreaks in Santa Clara County,” just across the Santa Cruz County line, and also has been found in neighboring Monterey County, the California Department of Public Health is reporting.

This variant, called 452R, is different than the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom. 452R has been identified in several large outbreaks in Santa Clara County.

“It’s too soon to know if this variant will spread more rapidly than others, but it certainly reinforces the need for all Californians to wear masks and reduce mixing with people outside their immediate households to help slow the spread of the virus,” said Dr. Erica Pan, state epidemiologist.

The state is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, local public health departments and laboratory sequencing partners to learn more about the variant, including how it spreads, according to a CDPH news release.

“The fact that this variant was identified in several large outbreaks in our county is a red flag and must be investigated further,” said Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody. “This virus continues to mutate and adapt, and we cannot let down our guard. This news underscores the need for everyone to follow all prevention measures and get vaccinated as soon as they are offered the vaccine.”

In addition to Santa Clara County, the 452R variant has been detected in Humboldt, Lake, Los Angeles, Mono, Monterey, Orange, Riverside, San Francisco, San Bernardino, San Diego and San Luis Obispo counties. Because genomic sequencing is not done equally across the state or country, it is too soon to know how prevalent the 452 variant is statewide, nationally or globally.

It was most recently noted to contribute to an increasing proportion of COVID-19 cases in specimens sequenced by Dr. Charles Chiu, a virologist and professor of laboratory medicine at UC San Francisco. Dr. Chiu has been sequencing cases from multiple counties across the state over the past several months as part of the state’s SARS-CoV-2 Whole Genome Sequencing Initiative.

“This variant carries three mutations, including L452R, in the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to and enter cells, and is the target of the two vaccines that are currently available in the United States,” said Dr. Chiu. “Researchers at UCSF and elsewhere will now be able to perform the critical laboratory experiments to determine whether or not this virus is more infectious or affects vaccine performance.”

Vaccine batch put on pause: Dr. Pan, the state epidemiologist, also is recommending that that a batch of vaccines — lot 41L20A of the Moderna vaccine — be put “on pause” due to possible allergic reactions that are under investigation. More than 330,000 doses from this lot have been distributed to 287 providers across the state. That amounts to about 10% of the vaccine shipped to California overall.

The apparent allergic reactions occurred in Southern California, the LA Times reported. Lookout will be working to determine Monday if any batches of the vaccine have been sent to Santa Cruz County.

“A higher-than-usual number of possible allergic reactions were reported with a specific lot of Moderna vaccine administered at one community vaccination clinic. Fewer than 10 individuals required medical attention over the span of 24 hours,” Pan said in a statement. “Out of an extreme abundance of caution and also recognizing the extremely limited supply of vaccine, we are recommending that providers use other available vaccine inventory and pause the administration of vaccines from Moderna Lot 041L20A until the investigation by the CDC, FDA, Moderna and the state is complete. We will provide an update as we learn more.”

Stay-home order update: The stay-at-home order remains in place indefinitely in Santa Cruz County and other Bay Area region counties based on 4-week projections of ICU bed capacity, CDPH said Sunday.

ICU capacity projections are based on four factors: current estimated regional ICU capacity available, measure of current community transmission, current regional case rates and the proportion of ICU cases being admitted.

The latest data showed Bay Area ICU bed availability at only 3.4%. The order went in place because the region fell below the state’s 15% threshold.

-Lookout Santa Cruz Staff

Jan. 15


3:30 p.m.: In a press conference with other local health officials today, county health officer Dr. Gail Newel said this week’s COVID-19 data in Santa Cruz, “surprised even me with its severity, it’s higher than we’ve ever seen.”

Perhaps the only good news is that local and regional hospitalizations have plateaued somewhat in recent days, and the Bay Area regional capacity is expected to stay above 0% for at least the next few weeks. In light of this news, Newel lifted the local ban on elective surgeries.

Here’s a look at the latest numbers:

Active cases: The county announced 228 new active cases of the virus today, bringing the current active case count to 3,017. Since the pandemic began, there have been 11,715 cases of COVID-19 recorded in Santa Cruz County; over a quarter of those cases are currently active.

Positivity rate: Santa Cruz County’s 14-day average positivity rate is 18.6%, down slightly from yesterday’s value of 20.6%, but still much higher than the average value across all California counties, which is just 12.9%. In today’s press conference, Dr. Newel also added that “some of our clinics are reporting, consistently, day after day, positivity rates [around] 40%.”

Positivity rate explained: A few people have asked Lookout about why the county reports a different positivity rate than the state, and which one is correct. Lookout has talked with Dr. David Ghilarducci, the county director of emergency medical services and he goes into detail about the issue.

Deaths: Two new deaths were confirmed today, bringing the total to 113. Both were men with underlying health conditions, one in his 60s and one in his 70s. Neither were residents of a skilled nursing or residential care facility. One was white and was of Asian ethnicity, according to county data.

Hospitalizations: There were 80 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Santa Cruz County as of Friday with 12 of them in the ICU. State data shows zero ICU beds available in Santa Cruz County, and in today’s press conference the county’s health services director Mimi Hall pointed out that the county has largely been at zero ICU capacity since Thanksgiving, which she said was “highly, highly concerning.” It is important to note that this number changes rapidly as people move in and out of the ICU, and is also highly dependent on staffing. The Bay Area regional ICU capacity is currently 3.4%, and the stay-at-home order remains in effect.

Dr. David Ghilarducci, the county’s emergency medical services director says that despite the low capacity, Dominican Hospital and Watsonville Community Hospital have not had to enact “crisis care standards,” a system similar to triage, though the county was “very worried” about that possibility over the past few weeks.

-Mallory Pickett

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