As of 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 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.

I look forward to the day where everybody can get a shot and we can be done with it, but we’re not there yet.

HSA Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci

Local, state, and national modeling are predicting the biggest COVID-19 surge yet in mid-March, fuelled by new and highly transmissible variants. To respond to the threat posed by these variants, the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (HSA) is ramping up efforts to vaccinate county residents over 65 years old, some 48,000 people. 

52 percent of county residents over the age of 65 have been vaccinated so far, and 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. 

The HSA hopes to maximize healthcare availability during the surge by having at least 60 percent of the 65+ demographic vaccinated by the first week of March. 

On Feb. 3, a joint press release by Bay Area health officials stated that a vaccine given to a resident older than 75 is 300 times more likely to save a life compared to a vaccine for someone under 50. 

Facing the urgency of the surge, the HSA also put out a call to all vaccine distribution networks to prioritize those 65 and older. 

“We are in a race against time [until the surge],” said HSA director Mimi Hall. “During that time it is so important for all [health care providers] to focus available vaccines on those 65 and over.”

The HSA and MCEs are both finalizing second doses for Phase 1A, and administering first doses for Phase 1B, prioritizing people over 65. 

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 is limited to everybody receiving second doses in Phase 1A and only the 65+ portion of Phase 1B.

County Vaccination Efforts

Over 59,000 vaccines have been administered in Santa Cruz County. 21,515 of these have been administered by the HSA. The HSA also has 12,060 doses currently allocated for second doses of Phase 1A and first doses of Phase 1B.

While the county’s main priority is to vaccinate as many people over the age of 65 as fast as possible, equitable vaccine distribution remains a concern. Combining data from the California Healthy Places Index (HPI) with case rates, death rates, and the California Immunization Registry, the HSA is prioritizing residents of the county’s hardest hit and most under-resourced communities who are over 65 years old.

The HPI looks at economic, education, housing, social, pollution, neighborhood, and healthcare access factors, weighted based on life expectancy at birth to compare community conditions across the state.

In a press conference on Feb. 11, Hall said that in Santa Cruz County 60 percent of deaths among people over 65 years old were in under-resourced communities. Regardless of age, a lack of resources contributes to mortality. 

“Of the people [who have died from COVID-19] who were not over 65, it’s noteworthy to mention that every single one of them were Latinx and living in South County,” Hall said. “If age is not a factor, ethnicity and where you live is a factor.”

Santa Cruz County is currently receiving between 2,000-3,000 vaccinations per week, which are distributed through public health clinics, hospitals, and mass vaccination sites. These include Watsonville Community Hospital, the Santa Cruz Community Health Centers, and Salud Para la Gente, a nonprofit health organization in Watsonville. 

The HSA is also operating a mass vaccination site in Watsonville through a partnership with OptumServe, a private health services provider contracted by the state to provide testing and vaccination services. The site currently offers 210 appointments per day, and is facilitating equitable vaccine distribution by setting aside appointment blocks for residents of HPI-identified zip codes above age 65. 

Despite best efforts by the HSA to prioritize the 65+ demographic, vaccination efforts have not always gone to plan.

The HSA held a mass vaccination drive on Feb. 10 at the fairgrounds, but had to cancel and reschedule appointments in advance after noticing that of the 1,000 available slots, over half were for people under age 65, and over 100 were for people who live as far away as Yolo and Los Angeles County. After rescheduling the nearly 300 legitimate appointments and re-opening the scheduling process, some 500 individuals were able to be vaccinated. No doses were lost in the process.

HSA Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci administered vaccinations at the fairgrounds on Feb. 10, and reminded residents that vaccines must be given to at-risk populations while supply remains scarce.

“One of the most frustrating things for me is I would see a carload of people come in with one elderly family member. I would’ve loved to give everybody in that car a shot, [but] we had to target the vaccine.” Ghilarducci said. “I look forward to the day where everybody can get a shot and we can be done with it, but we’re not there yet.” 

To avoid a similar situation in the future, HSA is working with community partners like Community Bridges to conduct targeted outreach. Registration links are now only shared with people identified as eligible to receive the vaccine. Similarly, the OptumServe site is screening individuals to make sure they are eligible. 

Vaccination Efforts by Multi-County Entities (MCEs)

Multi county entities (MCEs) are private health care providers like Dignity Health, Kaiser Permanente, and Sutter Health in Santa Cruz County. They receive allocations from their parent companies and follow the state phase guidelines. All are currently in Phase 1B. 

Public Information Officer Corinne Hyland said that Dignity Health reached its saturation point, where every person older than 65 eligible to be vaccinated through Dignity has been notified. As a result, Dignity began vaccinating occupational sectors within Phase 1B, assisting the HSA in vaccinating 1,000 farmworkers and 1,000 educators over the last two weeks. 

“This is without a doubt a team effort,” said Dominican Hospital President Dr. Nanette Mickiewicz in an email. “Our actions are guided by the understanding that the faster we help vaccinate these vulnerable populations, the healthier our community and the swifter our recovery.” 

Dignity Health Group has administered approximately 16,000 vaccines as of Feb. 10. Dominican Hospital administered 10,000 of these, and the remainder were given through its network of affiliated physicians in Santa Cruz County.

Meanwhile, Sutter Health received zero vaccine allocations over the past two weeks from its corporate office. HSA shared its allocations with Sutter, using its own vaccines to cover two days of Sutter’s appointments. No appointments were cancelled as a result.

“That’s exactly why we’re working with the MCEs,” Hall said. “We can’t have a situation where there’s a complete stop for one group of people because they have a certain kind of healthcare coverage.”

Kaiser is currently operating two vaccination sites in Santa Cruz County, in Scotts Valley and in Watsonville. Kaiser is prioritizing patients at an increased risk of mortality as well as those who reside in vulnerable communities. Current eligibility through Kaiser is limited to people over 75 years old, long-term care patients and staff, and health care workers. 

City on a Hill Press was only able to access Kaiser’s data for all of Northern California. Kaiser has over 270,000 members older than 75 in Northern California. As of Feb. 17 it has administered 319,900 doses, and has 144,000 future appointments scheduled. Kaiser is providing updates on its website.