SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, CA — State officials moved Santa Cruz County back into the more-restrictive red tier Tuesday, as COVID-19 cases increase locally and across the Golden State.
The red tier indicates a "substantial" COVID-19 risk level, and is the second-worst tier in the state's four-tiered, color-coded risk system. Two weeks ago, the county progressed into the less-restrictive orange tier, which indicates "moderate" COVID-19 risk.
Santa Cruz County health officials who spoke at a Tuesday news conference bore some good news, but warned of a recent spike in cases that could continue into the weeks ahead, as the weather cools, holidays loom and counties elsewhere around the Golden State continue to see worsening COVID-19 statistics. Most of these newly diagnosed cases were apparently spread at Halloween events, among pediatric patients, and young people who are ages 20 to 34 or younger than 19, said county Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel during a news conference Tuesday.
The county could return to the more-restrictive purple tier in the coming weeks, she said.
"Although we're all so starved for time with our friends and our families, this is a very risky time," Newel said, especially for the elderly and medically vulnerable.
Santa Cruz County was one of 11 counties that moved back a tier on Tuesday. Contra Costa, Amador, El Dorado and Placer counties also moved backward into the red tier.
South County and Latinx residents continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus, she said. There has been one new outbreak reported at an assisted living facility, which officials are working to contain.
County Health Services Agency Director Mimi Hall noted that Santa Cruz County is now seeing exponential spread, which means each COVID-19 patient is spreading the virus to more than one person, on average. The county was previously seeing spread to less than one person per COVID-19 case, on average, for weeks, she said.
"It's really, really a dire situation for Santa Cruz County," Hall said.
With the holidays on the horizon, Newel urged the public to review the county's holiday guidance, which calls on people to: voluntarily self-quarantine for two weeks upon their return to the county after gathering with people from another household; keep any gatherings brief and outside, if possible; avoid sharing cars with other households; and more.
It wasn't all bad news. Newel said she anticipates vaccines are coming to the county in December for skilled nursing facility residents and staff, and essential workers who are around COVID-19 patients. California is slated to get enough vaccines for five million people; there are nine million first responders in the state, Newel said.
The general public should not expect a vaccination for another year, she said. The public should expect to continue wearing masks, socially distance from others and take similar precautions for the next year.
Santa Cruz County hopes to see a significant increase in its testing capacity, as officials are eyeing a North County pedestrian walk-in site operated by federal health services company OptumServe, she said. OptumServe is also operating the testing site at Watsonville's Ramsay Park, which could see its capacity nearly doubled.
Newel also announced that skilled nursing facility Watsonville Post Acute may now accept new patients after getting its COVID-19 outbreak under control. No positive cases have been reported in the past four weeks, she said.
The outbreak sickened 50 residents and 21 staff, and resulted in 15 deaths, Newel previously said.
As of Tuesday, the county’s number of new coronavirus cases was 6.9 per day per 100,000 people. In this category, Santa Cruz County is inching toward the most-restrictive tier — the purple or widespread category — which is anything above 7.0 new cases per day. Statewide, 8.4 new COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed per day per 100,000 people.
However, Santa Cruz County is closer to the orange, moderate-risk tier when it comes to the COVID-19 testing positivity rate, which was 2 percent as of Tuesday. The orange-tier standard indicates a 2 to 4.9 percent positivity rate. Statewide, the positivity rate is 3.4 percent.
This data lags by a week, Hall said.
Santa Cruz County is now one of 22 California counties in the red tier. Another 12 are in the purple tier (widespread risk), while 17 are in the orange tier (moderate risk) and six are in the yellow tier (minimal risk).
While counties may enact further restrictions, the state allows counties in the red tier to open the following businesses and services indoors, with modifications:
shopping centers (50 percent capacity; closed common areas and reduced-capacity food courts)
restaurants (25 percent capacity)
fitness centers (10 percent capacity)
places of worship (25 percent capacity or 100 people — whichever is fewer)
museums (25 percent capacity)
zoos (25 percent capacity)
aquariums (25 percent capacity)
movie theaters (25 percent capacity or 100 people — whichever is fewer)
See which other businesses must close here.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, California Health and Human Services secretary, acknowledged during a Tuesday briefing that health officials understand that people are isolated and impatient.
"We know that this is hard work but we must do more," he said.
Officials urged the public to wear a mask, get a flu shot, maintain six feet of distance from others, wash hands frequently and minimize contact with people from other households.
There were 419 active COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday in Santa Cruz County. A total of 3,227 cases have been reported and 26 deaths have been linked to the virus.
Here's the breakdown by community:
Ben Lomond: 25
Boulder Creek: 28
Santa Cruz: 668
Scotts Valley: 81
Under investigation: 80