Alameda County health workers prepare different sized syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
(Anne Wernikoff / CalMatters)
Health & Wellness

COVID is on the rise, and yes, time to think about masking again

The numbers prove what you might suspect: COVID has hit a summer high. With no new vaccine anticipated until late September, expect to see more people wearing masks as drugstores empty their shelves of tests.

If you’ve increasingly heard of family, friends or coworkers coming down with COVID, you’re not alone. In Santa Cruz County, it has hit a summer high point, and the evidence of that is mounting. Empty shelves where the rapid test supplies used to sit are more commonplace in area drugstores.

County Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said local prevalence was higher in the late winter and early spring, but the current level is “definitely higher than we’ve seen all summer.” Even as many anticipate a reformulated COVID vaccine later in September, the current numbers corroborate that point:

  • The rate of COVID transmission in Santa Cruz County has steadily increased since June, and has exceeded 1 for consecutive months for the first time since October through December 2022. That means that each infection is spreading to more than one person, which could stress the medical system.
  • Local medical facilities are seeing a slight uptick in people seeking care. Santa Cruz’s Dominican Hospital had seven patients hospitalized for COVID on Monday and they were all in stable condition, Dominican Hospital Emergency Department nurse manager Tammy Green said via email. At the end of July, County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci told Lookout that there were five patients hospitalized for COVID countywide. Green added that Dominican averages about 15-20 people each day coming in with minor symptoms. However, she said that only “a small portion” of these people are testing positive for COVID, and that these numbers are lower than this time last year.
  • “Our wastewater monitoring shows a much higher concentration in late winter, but it does look like we might be trending up that way,” said Hernandez.
Local transmission is trending up since June.
(Via Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency)

The local rapid test supply is dwindling as local COVID prevalence hits a summer high point. Health care providers and pharmacies are looking to late September, when a new, reformulated COVID vaccine is expected to hit the market.

As COVID has become commonplace, fewer of us might be seeking medical care, so the health care system may have more incomplete data on infections, but people still want to test, for their own sake and for others.

However, many PCR testing sites — those that set up operations at locations like the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, the county building’s parking lot and Ramsay Park in Watsonville — shut down over the past two years and individuals increasingly rely on the availability of rapid antigen tests they’ve been able to buy at local drugstores and online. Although antigen tests are faster and cheaper, PCR tests are more accurate and sensitive. That means they are able to detect even the smallest amount of virus material in a sample.

In Santa Cruz, some CVS locations, including its pharmacy on Front Street, were fully sold out as of Monday afternoon, as were the Mission Street and 41st Avenue Safeways. Horsnyder Pharmacy on Soquel Avenue is sold out until Friday.

“Numbers are going up, so the tests are going quick,” said a Front Street CVS cashier, adding that the store should be restocked with rapid tests Tuesday.

Wastewater data shows local COVID prevalence at its highest point since the late winter, and still trending up.
(Via Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency)

But PCR tests are still available outside of hospitals and urgent care sites, if you’re seeking them out. CruzMedMo, the mobile urgent care company that launched during the height of the pandemic in 2020, still offers PCR tests with results in as little as 30 minutes.

“There has been a decline in demand, since [testing] is no longer required in many cases,” said CruzMedMo office manager Tabitha Bernardi. “But we still have a steady flow of people still wanting PCR tests.”

The expedited results do come with a price, though. Bernardi said that while CruzMedMo is in network with most private insurance plans including Blue Cross Blue Shield, Anthem, United Healthcare and more, uninsured patients are subject to a $150 payment.

CruzMedMo, along with the major pharmacies in the county like CVS, Walgreens and Safeway, will also be offering the reformulated COVID booster when they receive shipments of the jab. Those are expected in late September, and people can book appointments when the shipments come through.

The new formulation will not be a bivalent shot — one that targets the original “wild” type and the current dominant variant — but rather a shot that targets the Omicron subvariant XBB. 1.5., which is one of the most immune-evasive variants to date. Hernandez said the new vaccine will provide strong protection against the variant and others that could pop up: “It should have good cross-coverage for any other subvariant that comes along, because they’re all part of Omicron, but even more so, those from the XBB family.”

Hernandez, too, expects the vaccines to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the coming weeks, and available in late September. However, she does have one now-familiar piece of advice as the wait for the new jab continues: It might be time to stock up on N95 masks.

“If you’re in a crowded area, your personal health history puts you at a higher risk, or you live with someone who’s immunocompromised, I would say this is the time to start thinking about masking,” she said.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.