The drive-thru vaccination clinic at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
The drive-thru vaccination clinic at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Vaccine Watch

Vax rates lagging in San Lorenzo Valley, or data glitch? Health brass try to head off troubling trend

Santa Cruz County data shows lower COVID vaccination rates in Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek, but a data issue could be at least partly to blame. Either way, with the Delta variant raising the threat level, health officials are looking to rev up outreach in the San Lorenzo Valley.

While acknowledging that data glitches might be exaggerating the situation, Santa Cruz County health officials are looking to get ahead of what could be lagging COVID-19 vaccination rates in two mountain communities.

In Ben Lomond and Boulder Creek, 62.2% and 61.5% of the eligible population, respectively, have had at least one vaccination, per county health data. That’s significantly lower than the ZIP code with the next-lowest rate, the 95060 ZIP code in the city of Santa Cruz, which is at 70.4%; most other ZIP codes are over 72%.

It’s also significantly lower than the county average, which is 67.4%.

But, cautioned county deputy health officer Dr. David Ghilarducci, it’s possible the lower numbers are due to glitches with the state reporting website, the California Immunization Registry.

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“If this population area received their vaccinations from a CVS, Rite Aid, or Safeway location ... many of those doses may be ‘missing’ and this continues to be an issue the state is addressing,” Ghilarducci said via email. If this is true, he expects the numbers will eventually be corrected, and until then, “this is something we need to take with a grain of salt and understand that there is in fact underreporting occurring.”

Meanwhile, he said, Santa Cruz County is considering more targeted outreach efforts in the San Lorenzo Valley.

“We are actually investigating doing some pop-ups, [and] I know there’s been some early conversations with Boulder Creek Fire Department to see if they would host it,” Ghilarducci said. “We also have a plan to give money to community-based organizations if they want to do that anywhere in the county, especially up there.”

“I can’t really explain it but it is concerning,” Ghilarducci said of the data showing lower vaccination rates in Boulder Creek and Ben Lomond. “It’s not our traditional sort of equity group that we have really focused on [at] the county level.”

Ghilarducci said this is particularly worrisome because a first case of the Delta variant, which scientists believe could be more transmissible, has been found in Santa Cruz County, putting those who haven’t had the jab in a precarious position.

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“I believe the risk to the unvaccinated group is actually going up,” Ghilarducci said. “The disease rate and the death rate amongst [the] unvaccinated group is really going to be just as bad as it ever was.”

At present, Ghilarducci said almost all of the known COVID-19 cases in Santa Cruz are among unvaccinated people, and this is even more true for hospitalized patients.

The driving force behind what county data sees as lower vaccination rates in those communities does not appear to be easily explained by political differences or other demographic factors. Access to health care is a potential culprit, as there are fewer health clinics in the area.

“That said, if you live in Boulder Creek, it’s not too terribly challenging to drive down to Santa Cruz County and get a shot somewhere,” Ghilarducci said. “They’ve been widely available; there’s no constraints on supply.”

Mark Bingham, chief of the Boulder Creek Fire Department, said he was skeptical of whether the low vaccination rate was a true representation or the result of a data error. He said his unit rarely encounters unvaccinated people.

“Since we’re volunteers we [all] live here so we have kind of a big wide net,” Bingham said. “Everyone’s talking about being vaccinated, and [on] all of our calls that we’re running nowadays we’re asking patients and they’re saying [they’re] vaccinated.”