.At-Home Covid Tests Change Pandemic Response

At least 4,000 Santa Cruz County residents have been infected with Covid-19 during the current winter surge sparked by the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

That figure posted to the County Health Services Agency’s online dashboard, however, is likely vastly underestimating the true number of current infections as the arrival of at-home testing kits has thrown another obstacle in front of local health officials.

Anywhere between 3,000-4,000 Covid-19 tests are being administered per day in Santa Cruz County, Deputy Health Officer Dr. Cal Gordon said during a virtual press conference on Thursday. But that number does not include the hundreds, if not thousands, of at-home tests being self-administered as schools and employers across the county try to limit the spread in the workplace.

“At this point, we don’t have any solid information, and there’s been a lot of discussion among the health officers that the case rates aren’t going to be accurate going forward because of the home tests,” Gordon said. “And yet, we think this is the appropriate way for the future. Home tests are going to be our future, that people will have the ability to test when they are symptomatic or exposed, which is what we want.”

According to state data, the county’s current 7-day positivity rate is 12.8%, the highest the area has seen since last winter’s surge. But, Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci said, unlike last year’s surge, local ICU capacity and deaths have not seen similar rises.

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There were only three people in intensive care in local hospitals as of Wednesday. And although the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 has slightly increased over the past two weeks, a good portion of those patients did not go to the emergency room because of Covid. Some of the 34 patients were tested for Covid-19 before being admitted for surgery and tested positive for the disease as an asymptomatic carrier.

Ghilarducci said the “decoupling” between the case surge and serious hospitalizations is likely because of the county’s high vaccination rate that continues to inch its way toward the 80% mark—some 71% of all county residents are fully vaccinated and 77% have received at least one shot. Still, the area’s booster shot uptake, County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said, is not where they want it to be.

Only about 90,000 county residents—or a third of all people who live here and less than half of those eligible—have received the additional dose of the vaccine.

“It’s better in the older population, but much lower in folks under 50,” Newel said. “We need to see some big improvement there if we’re going to have an impact. Studies have shown that with the Omicron variant, in particular, we need that third dose, we need that booster in order for the vaccines to be effective.”

Newel again asked residents to move gatherings outdoors where the risk of infection is much lower and changed her recommendations on masks. Cloth masks alone, she said, are no longer recommended. Instead, people should use an N95, KN95 or a KF94 mask if possible. A surgical mask with a cloth mask layered on top of it will also work. The fit, she said, is as important as the type of mask, which should fit snugly to a person’s face.

While Newel said there was no possibility of mass shutdowns akin to those from the early months of the pandemic in 2020, she and her colleagues did acknowledge that the current rise in cases has heavily impacted every industry across the nation. The teacher and staffing shortages strangling schools and health care providers have been devastating to everyday life.

“The National Guard has come in to help with some of the testing [sites], we’re seeing some more support from the state in terms of staffing support, we’re looking at possibly posting paramedics and EMTs in the emergency department, bringing in some other non-medical volunteers to kind of stretch this out,” Ghilarducci said. “But I think the important thing going forward is that we have to recognize that we’re going to need to rebuild our health care system. We’re going to need to rejuvenate the brave women and men that work in the health care system to keep it going forward in the future to come.”

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