Santa Cruz County COVID tracking getting more sophisticated as a new vaccine enters environment

A vaccination site in Scotts Valley.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Omicron’s emergence has caused 2022 to look a little bit different, with more surges and reconsideration of mask mandates than was expected during the vaccine campaign of 2021. But can a traditional vaccine — one officials hope will get more people vaccinated — and a booster that targets Omicron spell the beginning of the end of the variant’s reign?

Two years, a series of jabs and a few on-again-off-again mask mandates into the pandemic, and Santa Cruz County is still well within the COVID storm.

The emergence of Omicron and its subvariants have set us back, in a sense, since the turn of 2022. After the first cases of the original Omicron variant were confirmed in December, cases surged locally, although fewer serious cases were observed.

After that initial spike, the COVID landscape calmed briefly, until the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 spurred yet another surge just a few weeks ago.

The seemingly endless stream of new variants and subvariants has certainly kept us on our toes and raised many questions. Now, as a new vaccine gets approval from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and with an Omicron-targeting booster presumably on its way this fall, only time will tell if those tools finally flatten the COVID curve for good.

Indicators for rising cases

We know cases are high, but how high are they exactly? Because so many people are now using at-home antigen testing, case numbers — which are generally flat — are not reliable on their own as an indicator, Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer Cal Gordon reiterated to Lookout.

Those current numbers are indeed flattish: 2,197 active cases, per Monday’s update from the county’s Health Services Agency — up 77 from last week.

With much experience gained through the pandemic, though, Gordon says his office can now make its assessments by weighing several indicators including case numbers, positivity rates, hospitalizations and wastewater infection metrics to get a clearer idea on spread.

“So if we look at the wastewater data, even locally, our wastewater data shows that we’re on the way up,” he said. “Also, positivity rates have gone up … but this has been a continued increase. I think the bottom line is that the reported cases may appear flat, there are a number of indicators to suggest that we continue to rise.”

Bryan Condy, laboratory manager for the City of Watsonville Public Works & Utilities, says Watsonville’s wastewater data shows a similar trend, but the current situation raises unique challenges.

“There has been a generally steady increase in the Watsonville wastewater coronavirus concentration since May,” he said. “However, the concentration is about 10 times what it was a year ago, so it would be hard to get a ‘spike’ at this point since it is so widespread.”

As of Monday, the positivity rate for Santa Cruz County was 15.2%, while the statewide positivity rate was 16.4%.

The new variants appear to be causing the increase.

“We know for a fact with the BA.4, and now the BA.5, which is the predominant one in the state, it is highly, highly infectious. Even if you’re vaccinated, you can potentially get infected,” Gordon said. “And even if you had the last of Omicron 2.12.1 [variant], you can get infected more quickly, and the 2.12.1 infection doesn’t necessarily provide you protection against the BA.4 or 5.”

Considering the conditions, Gordon said the public should expect that while going to any setting where there’s a significant number of people, such as a grocery store, “the reality is that you’re going to be exposed to COVID.”

When trying to decide whether to mask indoors, Gordon said it’s up to each individual or household to use personal judgment.

Novavax shots coming soon

As mentioned briefly in Monday’s COVID Dashboard update, Santa Cruz County could soon be adding another tool to its COVID-fighting repertoire.

Last week, the CDC approved the Novavax vaccine for unvaccinated adults 18 and older. In a statement, the CDC said the jabs will be available within weeks.

County Health spokesperson Corinne Hyland said that when the shots are available, they are likely to be free, but could come with an administrative fee that is billable to insurance.

While the Novavax vaccine is a two-shot series like that of Pfizer and Moderna, the protein subunit technology used to produce the formula is much more familiar than the newer mRNA method used in the two predominant COVID vaccines.

According to the CDC, protein subunit technology has been used for more than 30 years in the U.S., having been used to develop the first licensed hepatitis B vaccine as well as various flu and whooping cough shots.

Health care experts hope that long history will quell some of the vaccine hesitancy surrounding the COVID jabs.

“If you have been waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine built on a different technology than those previously available, now is the time to join the millions of Americans who have been vaccinated,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

Novavax clinical trials showed that the vaccine demonstrated 90% efficacy in preventing symptomatic disease and 100% protection against moderate and severe disease. However, these trials were conducted prior to the emergence of the Delta and Omicron variants, so real world data is yet to be determined.

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