As of Wednesday Feb. 19, there are 14,438 cases of COVID-19 in Santa Cruz County, including 172 deaths and 13,605 recovered. For updated information on vaccine eligibility, please check the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (HSA) website.

As of Wednesday Feb. 17, UC Santa Cruz has a 0.17 percent seven day positivity rate. Eight students are in quarantine and nine are in isolation. For more information, please visit UCSC’s Tracking COVID-19 website.

Santa Cruz County is currently seeing a plateau in COVID-19 case rates, following a significant drop in cases after the holiday spike. However, health officials warn that this is the calm before the storm, with the largest surge yet projected to come mid-March. 

During the holiday surge, positivity rates reached as high as 12 percent across Santa Cruz County, including 22 percent in Watsonville, and forced much of the state into shelter-in-place orders to preserve health care capacity. As of Feb. 17, the positivity rate is down to 3.5 percent.

Health officials state that the projected mid-March spike will be fuelled by new variants of the virus. The spike would not happen, said HSA Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci, if mask-wearing was nearly universal, adding that the recent drop in cases is strongly associated with residents following health orders.

“The fall in case rates we’re seeing is all about behavior,” Ghilarducci said. “We’re very fortunate the public responded [with mask wearing and social distancing] and helped lower our case rates. We ask for continued vigilance.”  

Despite the fall in case rates, Santa Cruz county remains in the purple tier, the most restrictive. This means many non-essential indoor businesses and services are closed, but can provide outdoor services. To move out of the purple tier and into the red tier, the county’s rates must be below seven new cases per day. As of Feb. 17, Santa Cruz County has a case rate of 12.2 new cases per day.

In light of the upcoming surge, county health officials are making a significant push to vaccinate as many county residents over the age of 65, some 48,000 people, by mid-March. 

Mid-March Surge and Current Vaccination Efforts

Like all viruses, the COVID-19 virus has the capacity to mutate, on occasion creating highly contagious variants. This has been the case for the UK, South Africa, Brazil, and California variants, all of which have been proven to be about 50 percent more transmissible than the original strain. 

Fuelled by the variant strains, the mid-March surge is expected to be the largest yet, peaking in April and subsiding by early May. This is based on national, state, and local models that take into account the transmission of new variants across the country, vaccination progress, and the natural ebb and flow of case rates. 

Health officials do not expect enough vaccines to be administered by mid-March to minimize the surge. However, through mask-wearing and social distancing, the impact on health care capacity can be mitigated.

The HSA is ramping up efforts to vaccinate as many people over 65 years old as possible before the surge starts, in order to preserve health care capacity and save as many lives as possible. The HSA is also coordinating with private insurers to follow suit and share vaccine allocations if need be. 52 percent of county residents over the age of 65 have been vaccinated so far.

“With the limited amount of vaccines we have right now, it has to continue going to health care workers and to everyone age 65 and over,” Hall said. “When we vaccinate those groups we’re going to preserve healthcare capacity [for the surge], and reduce hospitalizations and deaths.”

Public Information Officer Corinne Hyland said nearly all healthcare workers who opted to be vaccinated will have received their second dose by the end of next week. 

Officials hope to expand Phase 1B eligibility to essential occupations – education, food and agriculture, childcare, and emergency services – by the first week of March. Eligibility has so far been limited to everybody receiving second doses in Phase 1A and Tier 1 of Phase 1B, which includes all county residents over 65 years old. 

New Vaccines on the Horizon

Health officials say there is reason to exercise cautious optimism with the potential approval of new vaccines, like Johnson & Johnson and Oxford-AstraZeneca, soon. 

“There’s hope on the horizon with the vaccines that are coming out and are remarkably effective,” Dr. Ghilarducci said. “Johnson & Johnson in particular is going to be a real gamechanger, since it is fairly inexpensive, is a single dose, and is much easier to store.” 

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine could reach approval by early March, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is already in use in Europe, Argentina, and India.

The only vaccines available in the U.S. at this time are the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Both are mRNA vaccines and require a booster shot 21 days or 28 days after the first dose, respectively. 

As Santa Cruz County moves toward the largest surge yet, residents should exercise all precautionary measures – mask wearing, social distancing, hand washing, and reducing non-essential travel.