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September 17, 2021

Santa Cruz County health officer says mask order won’t change behavior

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY—Saying that she has not yet seen reliable data that a countywide masking mandate would alter personal behavior or lower Covid-19 cases, Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said she does not plan to issue a new order any time soon.

Newel at a Thursday virtual press conference said that at this point of the pandemic—deemed the “mitigation phase” by Health Services Agency Director Mimi Hall—the county did not want to distract from its ongoing efforts to increase its commendable but still unsatisfactory vaccination rates.

Across the county, 78% of those eligible for the inoculation have had at least one shot of the Covid-19 vaccines, and 68% are fully vaccinated. When expanded to all county residents, said Deputy County Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci, the percentage of those who are partially vaccinated drops to 67%.

That percentage, health officials say, will undoubtedly improve when those under 12 are allowed to get the shot, but it is unknown when federal health agencies will OK the vaccine’s use for children. Newel said she has heard that approval could come by the end of September, at the earliest.

Health officials called the press conference, Newel said, to again urge those who are not vaccinated to get their shot. The rate of vaccinations has slowed, Ghilarducci said, particularly in people living in Boulder Creek and Ben Lomond. Unsurprisingly, he added, the number of North County and caucasian residents aged 25-50 coming down with the disease has risen.

Overall, at least 687 county residents were infected with Covid-19 as of Thursday, according to the data available on the county’s dashboard. The county’s seven-day positivity rate on Thursday was 5.2 cases per 100,000 residents, a number that would have placed the county in the orange “moderate” tier under California’s reopening plan scrapped by Gov. Gavin Newsom in June.

Hospitalizations have also slowly risen in the past week. According to state data, there were 18 patients in local hospitals with the disease on Wednesday, including three in the ICU.

Ghilarducci said that ICU capacity is not the only issue at local hospitals. Low staffing as a result of the pandemic—doctors and nurses are taking sabbaticals and vacations after the hectic past 16 months—and people returning to the hospital for elective procedures have also put a strain on the health care system.

“Our hospital workers are burned out,” Ghilarducci said.

The county also recently reported its first Covid-19-related deaths since May. Both were unvaccinated people in their 70s. Those deaths, Ghilarducci said, were preventable, as vaccinated people are more than 16 times less likely to die from Covid-19 than those without the shot.

“The Delta variant is here,” added Newel. “It’s time to be vaccinated if you’re not already … We need all of the layers of protection that we can get and even vaccinated folks should be wearing masks indoors.”

But Newel stopped short of following many of her peers across the state in issuing a masking mandate—instead, keeping in place her recommendations issued last month. Along with saying that it would not alter the behavior of people who do not wear masks, she said that she did not want to put local law enforcement in the same position they were last year when officers had to enforce masking orders on public beaches and other spaces. She also said she did not want to undercut HSA’s vaccination outreach efforts, which, health officials say, have largely paid off in South Santa Cruz County.

It was Watsonville—with its large low-income and uninsured population that makes up much of the county’s workforce deemed essential by the state and federal governments last year—that bore the brunt of the pandemic. The majority of the county’s confirmed 17,272 Covid-19 cases and 209 deaths happened in its southernmost city. Seeing that, HSA invested the bulk of its federal and state Covid-19 funding into partnerships with Watsonville nonprofits and other community based organizations. It also chose to establish a free Covid-19 testing center, erect a vaccination center and run its massive weekly drive-thru clinic in Watsonville.

As a result, Watsonville has the highest vaccination rates in the county—69% are fully vaccinated and 81% are partially vaccinated.

“We are spiking the football,” Hall said, adding that not everyone agreed with HSA’s “equity” approach over the last year. “I truly think our efforts saved lives.”

HSA Assistant Director Jen Herrera said the Covid-19 testing centers in Watsonville and Santa Cruz will be open through the rest of the year. The vaccination center in downtown Watsonville, however, will close at the end of the month—both the testing and vaccination centers are funded by the state. 

Herrera said that the county is trying to work with a local organization to offer an alternative when the downtown Watsonville center closes.

Tony Nuñez
Managing Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor for five years before entering his current role in 2019. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.

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