a busy Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz
A busy Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Health & Wellness

A summer COVID spike is underway in Santa Cruz County, but officials say it’s a mild one

The impact of COVID on society looks very different these days when compared to much of the past three years, with a current mild summer spike showing hospitalizations nowhere near surges of previous years. The disease will never go away, but both public health agencies and our immune systems are as prepared as ever, says Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci.

A summer COVID wave is underway across the United States as cases and hospitalizations have risen in recent weeks. Wastewater data shows an increase in COVID’s prevalence in Santa Cruz County, too, which began shortly after the Fourth of July holiday.

County public health samples wastewater at three different sites — one in the city of Santa Cruz, a county site that tracks midcounty areas from Live Oak to Soquel and Aptos, and a Watsonville site. Only the Santa Cruz city site shows a COVID rise. However, Santa Cruz County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci called this a “very slight uptick,” likely tied to the Independence Day long weekend.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates about a 10% rise in hospitalizations nationally for the week of July 9. Deaths, however, have not followed the same trend, and remain steady.

Summer travel tends to cause a surge in COVID cases, and this year, due to very hot weather in many parts of the country, people might be gathering indoors more frequently. That can lead to higher rates of infection, Ghilarducci said.

“We do see this trend going up, and it seems to be rising steadily, but it’s not a huge number compared to before,” said Ghilarducci.

(Via Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency)

Local hospitalizations remain very low. Ghilarducci said that as of Friday, there were only five patients hospitalized for COVID countywide: “This is actually a very low number we have in the hospital right now. I think Santa Cruz County is looking pretty good.”

That said, he added that public health officials can’t rule out that the mild summer surge is an early warning sign that the situation could worsen. The academic year is just around the corner, and often brings an increase in many communicable diseases as students return to schools and dorms. Winter months will follow soon after, and the increase in indoor gatherings paired with holiday travel is likely to lead to some version of a winter surge.

“But we’re seeing an increasing disconnect between infections and people ending up in the hospital,” said Ghilarducci, adding that it can be entirely attributed to the fact that nearly everyone has been infected, vaccinated or both. “Nobody is immunologically naive anymore.”

Additionally, Paxlovid, the go-to antiviral used to treat COVID infections, is much more widely available than it was during the depths of the pandemic. Ghilarducci said that although it used to be available under emergency use authorization only, Paxlovid is now available for anyone 18 and older. It’s even available for people ages 12 to 17, but it’s likely that the only people from this age group who would need it are those with underlying health conditions.

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“I do hear reports, though, that sometimes it’s a challenge for people to get a prescription. They may be required to go in for a visit and can’t get an appointment right away,” said Ghilarducci. He added that the main problem with this is that the drug is by far the most effective when used in the first day or two of symptoms. “So I encourage our health care system to be nimble and to get these prescriptions out there for people that need it.”

Ghilarducci said that vaccination remains the most important tool for protection. Another round of boosters is expected this fall, and that’s likely going to be the regular schedule for the foreseeable future: “You’ll probably get both [the COVID booster and a flu shot] at the same time in the fall.”

Ghilarducci added that the booster formula will be changed before the fall rollout. The new formula will no longer target the original 2019 COVID strain, as it has entirely mutated into different variants at this point. He said that while the emergence of another highly transmissible, immune-evasive variant like Omicron is unlikely, Santa Cruz County — and the rest of the world — is as ready as ever.

“What’s really changed is that we know what tools work now,” he said. “We’re much more prepared for it both biologically and in terms of how public health agencies can respond.”

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