Santa Cruz County health officials panel
Santa Cruz County health officials (bottom left, clockwise) David Ghilarducci, Mimi Hall and Jen Herrera answer media questions via moderator Jason Hoppin about COVID-19 and vaccination on Thursday, Feb. 11.
COVID 2022

Stay-home order might lift within 2 weeks, but don’t hold breath awaiting pandemic’s end

Santa Cruz County health officials said Friday the state of the pandemic locally is improving but is still worse than much of the state. Nonetheless, the Bay Area regional stay-at-home order could be lifted within two weeks.

Officials also warned that the current pace of vaccination remains slow, mostly due to limited supply. Here are several key takeaways from their afternoon news briefing:

The state of the pandemic

County Health Officer Gail Newel reported that local hospital capacity is improving, but is still very limited. She said that as of Friday Dominican had 45 COVID-19 patients and Watsonville Community had 19. In both hospitals, the population is similar to what has been seen throughout the pandemic: almost all the patients are over 65 and most of them are from residential care settings, such as nursing homes or assisted-living facilities.

Lookout’s COVID Today, the latest on COVID-19 developments as they happen, is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of the pandemic this year. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

Statewide and regional ICU capacity is slowly improving, and Newel said she has heard from state officials that the Bay Area regional stay-at-home order could be lifted within the next two weeks. However, “at a local level we very much remain at a surge, our hospital census data and our ICU capacity remains very concerning,” she said. “We jumped from 56 cases per 100,000 [people] per day to 71.”

She cautioned that even when the stay-at-home order is lifted the local situation remains dire. A case rate of 71 per 100,000 residents is 10 times the threshold that puts counties in the “purple tier” of the state’s safety framework. Newel also pointed out that the current modest plateau in hospitalizations is not expected to last, and that the health care system is still bracing for the surge in cases pst-Christmas and New Year’s to hit hospitals.

Still, if the stay-at-home order is lifted, Newel said she would abide by it — even though county officials could keep various restrictions in place. Once that happens, Santa Cruz County would move back into California’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” framework.

Vaccinations moving forward . . . slowly

Officials also shared a mix of hopeful and frustrating news on local vaccination progress. On the good news front, the county will be moving forward with vaccinations for phase 1b, likely “at the end of next week,” according to Newel. This effort will commence with a mass vaccination clinic at the fairgrounds in Watsonville, after a test run is completed with a few hundred of the final members of phase 1a. (A chart listing everyone in phase 1a and 1b is at the end of this article).

Not everyone in phase 1b is eligible yet, as the state has instructed everyone administering vaccinations to prioritize first those over 75, then those over 65. Just vaccinating those over 65 may take until the summer, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan.

Local health systems — Sutter/PAMF, Kaiser, and Dignity Health — have already begun phase 1b, but the county has been required to use its allocation of 19,000 vaccines for people in phase 1a first.

The county’s mass vaccination clinic, as well as future clinics planned at local Safeway stores, will be mainly targeted for those in phase 1b who do not have health insurance or a connection to a health system. Those who are able to get vaccinated through Kaiser, Sutter/PAMF, or Dignity, should try to get their vaccine through those providers first.

County director of public health Mimi Hall highlighted the fact that the state is allocating more vaccine doses through the multi-county health systems than through local health jurisdictions. This creates an issue of equity in access to the vaccine, a topic that was discussed in detail at a Lookout virtual event Thursday night.

“All the states, especially California, are under great pressure to get as much vaccine out as possible,” Hall said. She said the health systems, known as multi-county entities are “low-hanging-fruit” to do this: they have strong infrastructure throughout the state, and plenty of staff.

“That’s great in terms of getting lots of vaccines out quickly,” Hall said. But she said she has encouraged state officials to instead “make some investments in the communities where [vaccines are] difficult to get out, but are the most impacted.”

Hall added that the state is piloting a system in some counties where testing sites contracted to OptumServe — like the ones in Ramsay Park in Watsonville and the Civic Auditorium in Santa Cruz — also serve as vaccination centers. Eventually, OptumServe might operate vaccination clinics here.

New vaccination app problematic

Newel said state health officials had notified her earlier in the week that Californa would likely be moving to an age-based framework — instead of the current age-and-occupation based framework — for vaccine prioritization. Now that Joe Biden is in the White House, the federal government is reportedly also considering making this change.

According to Newel, Gov. Gavin Newsom was supposed to release these updated guidelines on Thursday, “but our understanding now is he’s under immense pressure,” from advocates from members of the workforce that would no longer be prioritized under an age-based framework. As of Friday, Newel had no hint from the state as to when — or if — the revised guidelines would be made public.

The state of California issued a new app called MyTurn, meant to be for all California residents to register for notifications when they are eligible for vaccination, and to help with scheduling. However, it’s not functioning for all counties and state officials haven’t yet promoted it widely.

Dr. David Ghilarducci, the county’s director of county emergency services, said local health authorities still aren’t able to access state data on how many people in Santa Cruz County have actually received a COVID-19 vaccination, because of issues with the California Immunization Registry.

Additionally, local health officials are unable to access the number of vaccines delivered to and administered by the multi-county entities or the federal pharmacy partnership (a program to vaccinate nursing homes). “It’s kind of a blind spot,” Ghilarducci said.

Here’s a look at existing vaccine tiers:

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