Julia Diana Woods (right) making a purchase at the downtown farmers market.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID 2022

COVID-19 updates in Santa Cruz County: Infections, hospitalizations, deaths and demographic data

The What: Santa Cruz County’s COVID-19 positivity rate has flattened in the past week and has now decreased by 17% according to county data. Santa Cruz County’s total death toll increased to 227, an increase by one since last week as of Dec. 20.

The So What: Officials caution that the downward trend may not be accurate as there is also a downward trend in tests being officially reported. This is partly due to a marked increase in at-home testing.

They warn the Omicron variant is likely to cause a significant increase in cases, and the county reported its first cases earlier this week.

How Santa Cruz County compares: The county is currently in the orange tier, indicating a substantial level of infectious spread. This level is the same as most of its neighbors in Northern and Central California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though better than neighboring Monterey County, which is in the red tier. The state as a whole is also currently in the red tier.

As of Thursday , 70.7% of Santa Cruz County residents were fully vaccinated, a slight increase from the week prior. Though slightly higher than the statewide figure of 66.8%, Santa Cruz continues to have one of the lowest rates in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

Neighboring Santa Clara and San Mateo counties had a fully vaccinated rate of 81.2% and 79.4%, respectively. Marin County was at 83.2%, the highest rate in the state.

However, as Lookout reported on Dec. 10, a quirk in the state reporting figures may be artificially reducing that number. Raw data for ZIP code 95064 — home to UC Santa Cruz — shows fewer than 20% of the more than 10,000 official residents in that area have been vaccinated.

But UCSC stats show more than 95% of students — who would be the primary residents on campus — have been vaccinated. Using this figure instead increases the overall county vaccination rate by nearly 5%. This, in turns, puts it much more in line with neighboring counties.

Asked about this, county spokesperson Jason Hoppin has pointed to previous statement from health officials about why this might occur — people traveling across county lines for a vaccine, for example. Still, he said, “given the continued level of asymptomatic transmission, a population-wide vaccine percentage is really not an indication of health or safety any longer.”

“The best indication of health and safety as whether the individual has been vaccinated, period,” said Hoppin.

Current cases, hospitalizations and deaths: As of Monday, Santa Cruz County has 581 active COVID-19 cases, a decrease of nine from the prior week. As of Dec. 23 there are two known cases of the Omicron variant in the county.

“We’ve been seeing a decrease in our case counts, but I can’t say that we’re very optimistic,” Dr. David Ghilarducci, the county’s deputy health officer, said. “We know that Omicron is here in this county, we know how transmissible it is, and we expect the case counts to really follow what the rest of the state and the country are doing in a rapid explosion of cases.”

He added that although the new variant’s symptoms are not as severe as the Delta variant, Omicron’s increased transmissibility still has the potential to overwhelm local hospitals.

A total of 14 people are hospitalized, the same as a week ago according to county data. A total of 227 county residents have died of COVID-19 or related complications since the start of the pandemic, up by one from a week ago.

COVID-19 patients are treated at either Dominican Hospital or Watsonville Community Hospital. Kevin Kimbrough, spokesperson for Dominican, said of the 13 patients at the facility, seven were unvaccinated, six had received the single Johnson & Johnson shot or two of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and none had received a booster shot. Of those hospitalized at Dominican, eight were newly admitted since last week.

Watsonville Community Hospital officials have not responded regarding hospitalizations at its facility. In addition, though county data is normally updated twice weekly, many of the figures below are from Dec. 20 — the last day the figures have been updated, likely due to the holiday.

Change in rate of infections: When the mask mandate was reestablished on Sept. 29 — after being removed in August — county health officials said the turnaround was due to a surge in local cases and hospitalizations. That trend has since flattened and has begun to decrease, but officials say the trend could be a result of a lack of testing as well as an increase in at-home testing.

Ghilarducci said that at-home COVID-19 testing has made it difficult for officials to track results.

“We think that our ability to count the cases is probably not as good as it used to be and it’ll probably get worse over time,” he said. “So much of the testing is happening, kind of in the blind, because it’s happening at home and not being reported through our electronic reporting structure.”

Ghilarducci said the county is applying for a grant to fund wastewater surveillance in an effort to track COVID-19 in sewage. He said the data collected from wastewater surveillance would give health officials an early indicator on infections in the county, even more so than current testing, but may not be available until the spring.

“Those numbers will start to come up before people even go out and get tested,” he said. “So it gives us an early indicator, but we don’t have that currently in our county, and we’re hoping that our grant gets approved.”

Health officials track whether the case rate is increasing or decreasing by looking at a 14-day rolling average. Over the past four weeks, this figure flattened and then decreased over the past two weeks, with a current rate of -17%, lower than the previous week.

Last week, Santa Cruz County spokesperson Corinne Hyland said a majority of current cases are specific to the Delta variant. She said that with temperatures dropping and holiday gatherings increasing, the county is likely to see an increase in delta cases. With the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, Hyland said the county is likely to see a significant uptick in cases this winter.

Data from Dec. 22, 2021
(Source: Santa Cruz County public health)
Overall COVID cases by region - Dec. 20
Data from Dec. 20, 2021
(Source: Santa Cruz County public health )

Geographic breakdown: Overall, South County has seen a high number of cases compared to other regions. In particular, Watsonville has had 44.48% of the total number of cases despite comprising 18.3% of the overall population, going a long way toward explaining why the region has seen more than half of the county’s total cases.

When looking at the current cases, the caseload in Watsonville is higher to the one in Santa Cruz — nearly 40% of the total — despite Santa Cruz having the larger population.

Active cases by region - Dec. 20
Data from Dec. 20, 2021
(Source: Santa Cruz County public health )

Officials continue to urge residents to wear masks and make COVID-19 booster vaccination appointments in anticipation of a surge of Omicron cases.

Wait times to make an appointment at local pharmacies are about two weeks out. For those willing to make the drive to Salinas, Watsonville or San Jose appointments are available as soon as Dec. 28 through CVS pharmacy.