Deputy health officer Dr. David Ghilarducci speaks during Thursday's press conference.
(County of Santa Cruz)
COVID 2021

Everything we learned from Thursday’s Santa Cruz County COVID-19 update

County health officials remain optimistic a return to normal in the next few months as COVID-19 vaccinations continue at a (relatively) brisk pace. But equitable distribution of vaccines remains a challenge.

Santa Cruz County health officials again appeared optimistic at Thursday’s press conference: Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said they are seeing “continuing downward trends in all the important numbers,” such as new cases, hospitalizations and positivity rates.

The other set of important numbers — those related to vaccinations — are continuing to trend upwards.

Deputy health officer Dr. David Ghilarducci said the county has reached 63% of residents 65 and older with one dose, and 17% of that group has received two doses. “We’re making significant progress on the most vulnerable,” he said.

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.

Achieving equity in vaccinations continues to be a goal — and a struggle. According to state data, white people have received 44.5% of all doses administered countywide, while only 18.2% have gone to the Latino population, despite that group accounting for more than half of all cases in Santa Cruz County.

Ghilarducci said the inequity is mostly due to the fact that Phase 1a vaccination priorities did not have provisions for race or equity, and were instead focused on elderly populations and health care workers. While this data was not made immediately available, he said that in the more recent numbers, “the racial equity mix seems to be improving.”

The press conference was wide-ranging and covered many aspects of the vaccine administration system. Here’s more of what we learned.

The perennial questions: Who is eligible right now, and how do I sign up?

  • Eligible people include those over 65, anyone who works in education, child care, food and agriculture, or emergency services (all occupations are defined here).
  • The occupation eligibility includes people with informal employment, such as in-home child care providers. In those cases no verification of employment will be required at county vaccine clinics, only self-attestation that they work in an eligible field.
  • As of March 15, people between the ages of 16 and 64 with certain underlying health conditions (listed here) will also be eligible, though these will be administered according to “clinician discretion.” Chief of public health Jennifer Herrera said the county is"currently in the planning process of ensuring that those patients have access to the vaccine.”
  • Individuals should sign up to receive eligibility notifications using the state MyTurn system. Businesses should sign up to be sure their employees are included using the county’s vaccine interest survey.
  • People who are currently eligible should try to make appointments through their health care providers. Information for how to make an appointment for each health care system, clinic, or for the uninsured, is provided here.

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Who will be next after phase 1b, and when will they start receiving vaccines?

  • Previously, state guidelines had been posted for a phase 1c that included certain employment sectors. This plan is officially scrapped — phase 1c no longer appears on the state vaccine site. Currently there is no official information on who will be eligible once phase 1b is completed, but Newel said they have been told the state “will be moving specifically to age based only after phase 1b.”
  • No timeline for when 1b could be completed was shared, but officials shared information indicating that vaccine distribution is expected to ramp up.

“Assuming that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is approved tomorrow, as expected, the state has told us we can expect to get 50% more vaccine per week over the coming three weeks,” Newel said. “This morning we were told on a statewide call that within four weeks, we could expect to have more vaccine supply than we will be able to administer, so that will be a happy day, when that happens — and we’ll see if that comes true.”

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What should I know about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

  • The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is expected to receive an emergency use authorization from the FDA, has been determined to be safe and effective, and only requires one dose.
  • A head-to-head comparison of all the COVID-19 vaccines available to patients in the U.S. “is very difficult,” Ghilarducci said, “but what I will say is that all of these vaccines, even the Johnson & Johnson are 100% effective in keeping you out of the hospital and and keeping you from getting seriously ill, and that I think is just a game changer for us.”
  • Lookout partner the Los Angeles Times reported that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is about 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19, and about 85% at preventing the most serious illness. Ghilarducci also pointed out that all the vaccines were tested during different points of the pandemic, and some of them completed trials before new variants of concern became widespread.

When will COVID-19 restrictions end?

  • Ghilarducci said all the approved vaccines “offer protection and promise to return to normal once we get enough people vaccinated,” and that they estimate the threshold for this return to normal will be to have about 80% vaccination. “I’m projecting, at least at the current pace, that we’ll reach that 80% mark in mid-August,” he said.
  • Ghilarducci added that he thinks it’s possible this return to normalcy could happen even sooner, if the vaccine supply increases as expected with the addition of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

If I get the vaccine, what activities are safe for me?

  • There still isn’t a lot of data available on whether a vaccinated person can still get infected and spread the disease without ever experiencing symptoms themselves. In the absence of this data, public health officials have been encouraging everyone who has been vaccinated to continue to follow all physical distancing guidelines.
  • But this may change soon. Newel pointed out that Dr. Anthony Fauci has been “publicly hinting” that the CDC will be releasing guidance around what we can do once we’re fully vaccinated “in the coming week or so.” Until then, everyone — even the lucky ones who are fully vaccinated — should continue to proceed with caution.