People take to the sidewalks in downtown Santa Cruz on Saturday, March 13, 2021.
People take to the sidewalks in downtown Santa Cruz on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Another easing of COVID-19 restrictions that might make streets even more crowded is expected by the end of March.
(Chris Fusco / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID 2021

Move to orange tier ‘essentially guaranteed’ by end of March, Santa Cruz County health officer says

Meanwhile, 120,000 vaccine doses have been administered to county residents, and about 35% of the eligible population has received at least one dose. 

Santa Cruz County’s COVID testing positivity rate, now at 1.2%, is “lower than we’ve seen in many months, if ever,” the county health officer said Thursday, meaning it is “essentially guaranteed,” the county will move to the less restrictive orange reopening tier on March 30.

As of April 1, new guidelines will allow for expanded openings of amusement parks as well as live outdoor entertainment, including outdoor graduations, health officer Dr. Gail Newel said.

What that means for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and schools here is expected to become more clear in the coming days. Additionally, state leadership, according to Newel, also has said that new, forthcoming guidance on sleepaway camps will go into effect starting June 1.

As Santa Cruz County inches out of the pandemic, Lookout is chronicling the changes in our lives and the accomplishments of everyday people. “People in the Pandemic” is one of eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of life amid COVID. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, and sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here.

Those reopening details came as county health officials gathered for their weekly COVID-19 briefing. Overall, Newel said officials were seeing “lots of continued good news this week,” and deputy health officer Dr. David Ghilarducci said local vaccination progress “continues to go very well” despite some frustration with vaccine rollout and availability.

Here’s more of what was shared in today’s update, including when vaccine eligibility might expand to those under 65, the impact of Blue Shield’s involvement in vaccine distribution, and details on the results of local vaccine equity efforts.

On vaccination progress and expanding eligibility:

  • Currently, age-based eligibility is limited to those 65 and older. But Newel said her estimate is that when another 20,000 first doses are administered here, eligibility could be expanded to those between 50-64 years old. This could happen, “I would say perhaps in another two weeks,” she said.
  • The county has administered 120,000 doses to county residents, and about 35% of the eligible population has received at least one dose, Ghilarducci said.
  • Many of these doses have been concentrated in the elderly population, with 84% of residents 75 and older having received at least one dose. This means if another virus surge does materialize, much of the vulnerable population will be protected, which should prevent strain on the hospitals. “That’s a big sigh of relief,” Ghilarducci said.
  • If vaccinations continue at the current pace, county projections show every resident will be vaccinated by Sept. 7. But Ghilarducci expects the pace to pick up considerably as promised increases in supply materialize. Without supply limitations, Ghilarducci said every county resident would be offered a vaccine in just two months.

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On vaccine equity:

Health services director Mimi Hall said that significant progress has been made in vaccine equity, despite Santa Cruz County not qualifying for the state’s vaccine equity program.

  • Most of the vulnerable communities as ranked by the state’s Healthy Places Index fall in the 95076 zip code. In December, about 20% of vaccines were administered to residents of that ZIP code, and now around 30% of all vaccines administered in the county have gone there.
  • But Hall acknowledged that “more could be done,” adding that, “We, unfortunately are limited by our resources, and our capacity, and timing and competing interests, but the Latinx community and our South County communities have always been and will continue to be our priority.” (As of this week, 19% of all doses administered in Santa Cruz County had gone to people of Latinx descent, who make up 33% of the county population).

On Blue Shield, the state’s new third party vaccine administrator:

  • Santa Cruz County, like “most of the California counties,” according to director Hall, will not be moving forward with a direct agreement with Blue Shield, the state’s appointed third party vaccine administrator.
  • Instead, the county is moving forward with a “memorandum of understanding” with California government operations. This will go before the county board of supervisors on March 23.
  • This decision is being made partly to ensure county officials will have input on vaccine distribution. “We really wanted to make sure that we had a say in where vaccine was allocated ... and make sure it was directed towards the most vulnerable populations,” Hall said.
  • Undere this arrangement, Blue Shield will still oversee vaccine allocation but will be required to work with county officials.

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On vaccine roadblocks at Sutter and elsewhere:

  • Sutter, “like many entities, did see a drop in their vaccine supply over the past few weeks,” Ghilarducci said. The county has supplemented Sutter’s supply in order to avoid cancellation of second doses, and has occasionally supplemented their supply for other purposes as well (though the county has authority over how those doses are used).
  • Overall first dose appointments have been difficult this month because the focus has been on wrapping up second dose appointments, which are the No. 1 public health priority, according to director Hall. This has somewhat slowed equity efforts, she said, because the population awaiting second doses skews white.