Call it a ‘swell,’ not a ‘surge’: Proms, graduations and out-and-about Santa Cruzans drive increased, but flattening, COVID numbers

A health care worker prepares a dose of the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Though hospitalizations and deaths remain relatively low, the recent swell of COVID cases has health officials stressing the importance of masking and vaccinations once again — even if the official guidelines won’t change anytime soon.

Call it the Omicron wrench.

After the vaccine rollout, increased testing capabilities and the introduction of COVID-specific antiviral medication, 2022 felt like the year normalcy would climb out from the hole it’s been in for the better part of the past two years.

The emergence of Omicron has thrown a wrench in the plan, and that wrench remains stubbornly lodged as we approach the year’s midpoint.

You’ve read it elsewhere, and it stays sadly true. The San Francisco Bay Area — which has endured COVID better than the country and the state overall for most of the pandemic — continues to persist as the COVID leader in California as we approach June.

But in unexpected breaking good news, Santa Cruz County’s health department reported Monday that the new cases appear to be leveling off. Monday’s active case count came in at 1,715, two fewer than last Monday’s 1,717 and 19 fewer than last Thursday’s 1,734. So that would essentially be flat, after five weeks of increases of 30% or more.

It might be good news, but it’s unclear if it forms a new pattern. Then, of course, there’s this proviso: Unreported home testing positives might be continuing to contribute to an undercount.

More widely, nearby Santa Clara and Monterey counties showed seven-day positivity rates of 8.2% and 5.8% as of May 18, last Wednesday. California’s positivity rate has steadily increased since late March, and stood at 5.5% as of Saturday.

Across the state and country, COVID-19 cases are increasing in a swell thought to be driven by the Omicron sub-variants BA.2 (so-called “stealth Omicron”) and BA.2.12.1.

Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer Cal Gordon says the case increase can be attributed to a multitude of causes.

“The sub-variants are more infections and evasive from our vaccines, and we believe that people are not masking at the same level,” he said. “There’s more gathering with proms, graduations and other activities.”

Locally, COVID-related hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths have remained relatively low, but Gordon says health care facilities are already under pressure.

“Dominican and Watsonville Community Hospital are seeing relatively high numbers of patients that aren’t even COVID-related, plus other types of infections including flu that’s beginning to surface,” he said. “It’s anecdotal, and it’s not extremely high numbers, but flu and other respiratory illnesses are out there.”

Gordon further explained that people are returning to health care facilities for reasons they have delayed for the past two years like chronic illnesses, elective surgeries, and other injuries, which further clogs the health care system and contributes to the overall high demand.

Another nuance in the number of COVID-positive patients in hospitals is that since the Omicron wave, it has become increasingly common that people coming to the hospital for another ailment or illness end up testing positive upon admission. Gordon says that remains true.

Then there’s the reality of the moment — more cases, but not many severe ones. There are still a number of people coming in with COVID symptoms that require care, but not at a very high level.

“There are definitely patients that have symptomatic COVID, and some end up in the ICU, but up to this point, we’ve had capacity in our ICUs, and we’re not seeing the same correlation between admissions and COVID cases as we have in the past,” Gordon said, adding that the increased availability and use of antiviral medications Paxlovid and molnupiravir greatly reduce hospitalization and death risk — the former by as much as 89%. “But again, hospitalizations and deaths tend to lag, so that can change.”

Even so, Gordon says it’s unlikely Santa Cruz County reinstates a mask mandate at this time.

“Right now, it’s thought that we’re in more of a swell than a major surge. We may be proven wrong later in the year but as of now, masks remain a strong recommendation and it’s not likely that we issue a new mandate,” he said. “There are a number of schools that will require masks for indoor graduations, which I think is appropriate.”

Most other institutions follow county guidelines, and will follow any changes when they come.

A Santa Cruz METRO spokesperson said that since county masking rules remain a strong recommendation, the transit agency’s advice to riders echoes that. METRO will likely announce any change or update in rules at its next board of directors meeting, June 24.

Although not required, complimentary masks are available on each bus.

Finally, the county is still trying to figure out how to use local wastewater testing — a significant tracking tool now widely used in the Bay Area and nationally for its understanding of local conditions.

Lookout reported earlier this year on Santa Cruz County’s participation in a newer program from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the county hasn’t been able to get the program off the ground.

Gordon says the delay is due to personnel and organization.

“Part of this is equipment, personnel, and finding a common approach,” he said. “Santa Clara County is 10 times our size, so it’s perhaps easier to resource these activities.”

There is currently no specific timetable for a county program, but a representative of the city of Watsonville told Lookout the city is planning to collect its first sample within the next two weeks. Still, Gordon said he believes the process will prove to be extremely useful for years to come.

“This will allow us to surveil different variants, other pathogens both bacterial or viral, as well as things like fentanyl,” he said. “We can use this to really understand what’s happening in our communities in terms of public health.”