By Jondi Gumz
On Aug. 24, with the state seeing the fastest increase in COVID-19 cases due to the more contagious Delta variant and a state order for healthcare workers to vaccinate, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors voted to require COVID-19 vaccinations or weekly testing for county employees.
About 85 percent of the county’s budgeted 1,937 employees are vaccinated, and about 300 are deemed unvaccinated, according to County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios.
“This is a significant statement by the Board on the importance of vaccinations to protect the health and safety of our community,” Board Chair Supervisor Bruce McPherson said. “Our employees have demonstrated leadership through their already high vaccination rates, and the Board encourages every community member to follow suit if they are able to obtain a vaccine.”
The vote gave employees 30 days — approximately Sept. 23 — to comply with the mandate or submit to weekly testing.
Employees who do not comply will face leave without pay or termination.
At the time of the vote, Santa Cruz County ranked 13th among California’s 58 health jurisdictions for vaccination.
Currently, the county updates its metrics on Mondays and Thursdays, with 69.7 percent of eligible residents with one dose and 62.7 percent fully vaccinated.
An employee who refuses to vaccinate or test weekly “will be deemed to have subjected co-workers to unnecessary safety risks,” according to the staff report from the County Administrative Office. “Appropriate action may include a leave without pay for non-compliance or termination based on the circumstances. Simply allowing the employee to continue working would not be an acceptable option.”
Due process in the form of a Skelly hearing is required for permanent employees who have a constitutionally protected interest in their job.
The estimated cost to carry out this mandate was not available.
Potentially the state could provide testing kits for free. If not, the cost of the kits is estimated at $40 or more, with the cost of testing administrators estimated at $70 to $100 per hour.
County government is the second largest employer in Santa Cruz County; UC Santa Cruz is the largest.
Cases Slow Down
The Santa Cruz County Health Officer mandated face coverings be worn indoors regardless of vaccination status starting Aug. 21.
The indoor mask mandate applies to all businesses and governmental entities, which must require employees to wear masks and post signs that are clearly visible and easy-to-read at all entry points for indoor settings informing the public.
And County Public Health released recommendations for participants in youth sports, those under 12 and ineligible for vaccines, along with staff, volunteers, and spectators, to reduce spread.
“We are seeing more cases in our youngest residents, including those not yet eligible to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Gail Newel, Santa Cruz County’s health officer. “Schools and organizations that provide youth sports and other activities should take precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 among these populations.”
The number of active COVID in the county cases dropped from 923 to 871 to 66e, according to the county dashboard, which is updated on Monday and Thursdays. New cases are mostly in north Santa Cruz County.
The 14-day change, a metric updated on Wednesdays, showed cases down 21 percent — a big change after increasing 64 percent in August.
The number of hospitalizations, which had been as low as 12, rose to 21 then dropped to 20, with the number of intensive care cases dropping from five to two, with 3 ICU beds available.
On Aug. 23, federal regulators granted full approval to the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which means the fact sheet people get will no longer describe the vaccine as experimental.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had granted the Pfizer vaccine emergency use authorization in December after a clinical trial of 44,000 people 16 and older were followed for a median of two months after their second shot. Half got the shot, and half got a placebo, the FDA said, with the vaccine 91 percent effective.
To get full approval, Pfizer followed 12,000 people for at least six months, the FDA said, and more studies will be required to assess the risk of heart damage as higher risk was observed for males under age 40, with the highest risk for those age 12 to 17.
The Pfizer vaccine will now be marketed as “Comirnaty.”
FDA Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock, in announcing the approval, said, “We recognize for some, the FDA approval may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated.”
Santa Cruz County Public Health and OptumServe has added a third testing lane at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, bringing daily testing capacity to 594. Hours are Monday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 6:45 p.m., with closures from 11 a.m.-noon and 4-5 p.m.
To guarantee your test, make an appointment at https://lhi.care/covidtesting/.
On Sept. 1, a second lane was added at the Ramsay Park OptumServe testing site in Watsonville, boosting daily testing capacity to 396. Hours are Wednesday-Sunday from 7 a.m. to 6:45 p.m., and closed from 11 a.m.-noon and 4-5 p.m. Make an appointments at https://lhi.care/covidtesting/
On Sept. 10, County Public Health opened a mobile testing bus which can handle 84 tests per day, at Community Bridges’ Mountain Community Resource Center in Felton. Hours are Friday-Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for the foreseeable future.
For information on rapid-turnaround tests see www.santacruzhealth.org/coronavirus under “Get Tested” link. Some sites may charge a fee.
For local information on COVID-19, call (831) 454-4242 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The OptumServe mass vaccination site at 250 Main St., Watsonville, transitioned operations to County Public Health and reopened Sept. 9, providing Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Hours are Thursdays, 9 a.m. –1 p.m., Fridays, 2–6 p.m., Saturdays, 9 a.m. –1 p.m. and Sundays. Appointments should be made at www.MyTurn.ca.gov. For more locations, see www.santacruzhealth.org/coronavirusvaccine
The state reports 67,000 COVID-19 deaths, a number that has been rising, with 82 percent of Californians receiving at least one dose of vaccine and 23.2 million fully vaccinated.
The state’s mandate for full vaccination or weekly testing of all teachers and support staff is to be fully implemented by Oct. 15.
In a case highlighted by the federal Centers for Disease Control, an unvaccinated Marin County elementary school teacher tested positive in May, with 22 of the 24 students, all ineligible for vaccine, getting positive test results. For those in the two rows seated closest to the teacher’s desk, eight of 10 were positive compared to four of 14 in the three back rows. The outbreak “highlights the importance of vaccinating school staff members who are in close indoor contact with children ineligible for vaccination as schools reopen,” according to health officials who investigated.
Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Education Faris Sabbah said all unvaccinated school employees are being tested at least weekly in compliance with the statewide order.
Two outdoor drive-through PCR testing sites are open to the entire school community for symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, with most test results available within 24-hours — faster than most alternatives. The first site is open at Cabrillo College in Aptos, parking lot K, from 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. The second location is at the PVUSD District Office parking lot, open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays.
Students and their families, and staff and their families are welcome to use this free service. Those needing a test simply fill out the registration one time at https://sccoe.link/inspiresc and go to either site. No appointment is required.
In a Sept. 10 letter to the community, he said, “We have yet to close a single classroom across Santa Cruz County this fall — a sign of success for which all students, parents, and staff members share credit. “
A recording of a town hall on the testing process is at www.youtube.com/user/santacruzcoe
COVID Cases by Town
As of Sept. 13
Aptos: 1,023 • Ben Lomond: 201 • Boulder Creek: 265 • Capitola: 564 • Felton: 222 • Freedom: 1,077 • Santa Cruz: 5,014 • Scotts Valley: 613 • Soquel: 474 • Watsonville: 8,795 • Unincorporated: 322
Under investigation: 327