Masked shoppers wait in line at Trader Joe's in Capitola.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID 2021

Everything we’ve learned about how COVID is spreading in Santa Cruz County

As part of Lookout’s COVID 2021 initiative, we’re answering readers’ questions. These questions about the spread of the virus are ones that experts tackled at a community forum on Jan. 21.

How does COVID-19 spread? Can we even go to grocery stores safely? What is the state of the virus in Santa Cruz County right now, and what does the future hold? Should officials be allowing tourists here?

These are among the questions that surfaced during a special Lookout event on Thursday exploring all aspects of the pandemic. Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease expert at UC Santa Cruz, and Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel answered these questions and related ones in detail. Here are their key responses, edited for clarity and brevity.

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Lookout wants to help you navigate this extraordinary moment in time so at the bottom of this story, ask us anything related to COVID-19 or the vaccines that are rolling out to eliminate it and we’ll do our best to track down answers for you. For more coverage, visit our COVID 2021 section and sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter.

Q: Are there still misconceptions about how the disease spreads?

Marm Kilpatrick: I think there’s still some misunderstandings about exactly what activities are of highest risk and which activities are of such low risk. And so I think the main things that are worth keeping in mind is that this is a respiratory pathogen that is spread primarily by close contact and sustained close contact, especially in indoor settings. And so if we can really focus our attention on basically the kind of core things that we’ve been obviously hearing about . . . the basic things of distance, masks . . . and basically, whether you’re in an enclosed space with someone, and then the kind of standard core public health stuff like hand hygiene, those are the ways that we can really greatly reduce our risk of becoming infected and passing the virus on to someone else.

There’s still quite a bit of talk and excitement about “if you’re passing someone outside on a path briefly going in opposite directions, is the risk of that exactly zero?” No, it’s not exactly zero, but it’s so much smaller than spending time indoors together with people we don’t live with.

There’s been a lot of talk of tourists coming over the hill, potentially exposing Santa Cruzans, and about people being in close contact on West Cliff Drive. What do you make of that?

Gail Newel: As Marm said earlier, it’s nearly impossible — not completely zero — but it’s nearly impossible to spread this virus outdoors during activity. So, surfing is safe, walking with your surfboard down to the ocean is safe. Even passing someone on the stairs, you know, up and down on the stairs to the beach is safe. Masks are not required when you’re outdoors unless you’re within six feet [of someone]. So we ask that everyone who’s outdoors, exercising or doing other activities . . . have a mask with them so they can put it on.

Marm Kilpatrick: What we really should be concerned about is if we find ourselves in an indoor space. So for example if we’re going to go shopping and there’s a line, and especially if there might be a line indoors to go into a store, those are the places where we do want to remember to have our masks on.

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I worry a little bit about people focusing too much of their energy on, say, outdoor tourism on West Cliff Drive, and then going into a shop or a store or something like that, and ending up, you know, three feet from someone else without a mask on for several minutes. That’s probably 100 or 1,000 fold more dangerous, so I think we want to make sure to focus our attention on those things that have the highest risk.

So we’re good to go grocery shopping?

Marm Kilpatrick: If shoppers can just be a tiny bit respectful of other people. If someone’s getting the milk and you want milk, too, wait a second or two for them to step out of the way you don’t have to be right in their face to get the milk at the same time. And if people can just do those small things — if you have masks plus distance, those two things — especially in kind of short time periods like you’re going to be doing while you’re shopping you’re at really, really low risk.

What about Santa Cruz, in particular because for a lot of the time early in the pandemic, Santa Cruz is doing so well compared to most counties you know in the state. Where are we kind of relative to the rest of California now?

Gail Newel: Santa Cruz is still doing better than the state overall, and I want to make sure that the community knows that they deserve all of the credit for doing that because it’s our individual behaviors that really determine how we do as a community. And so the community’s willingness to put on a face covering when they leave the house, to stay home if they’re feeling ill, to maintain their social distancing, to be compliant with what we’ve asked them to do, and I know it’s a lot, but they get all the credit. So for a long time, we had a very flat curve and very few deaths in our community. And then it caught up to us in the fall, and we started getting outbreaks in our skilled nursing facilities and our other residential care facilities, and then the rest of the state started really increasing in disease and we’re not an island.

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And so now our case rate is higher than it’s ever been. So if you’ll remember back you know Halloween, we were in the orange tier, that was very exciting. Then we got a little bit worse again, we were in the red for a couple of weeks. And then we went to the dreaded purple tier. Well the trigger for the purple tier was seven cases per day per 100,000 people, and we’re now at 71. So we’re at 10 times the number of cases we had when we were shocked to enter the purple phase at the end of November. So, very disappointing. And it’s a good reason to follow the stay-at-home order, the regional stay-at-home guidelines that say no gatherings outside of your own household. You should stay home, except to do essential activities, getting your groceries, and others. I wish I had better news.

Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel and UC Santa Cruz epidemiologist Marm Kilpatrick.
Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel and UC Santa Cruz epidemiologist Marm Kilpatrick.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What are your predictions, based on trends you’re seeing or information you’re getting, for the next few months.

Dr. Newel: Word is that the state’s data looks good enough that we might be coming out of the regional stay at home order in the next couple of weeks and they’re basing that on the four week projected ICU capacity. When we come out of the regional order though, we’re going right back into purple. And we are a deep purple. So I don’t want … people to get too excited about any changes.

Have a question about the pandemic? Ask Lookout . . .