.Winter Covid Update

Deputy Health Officer Cal Gordon talks new Covid strain, RSV and more

Anecdotally, it feels like everyone knows someone with Covid these days—or someone who is sick.  

Even Deputy Health Officer Cal Gordon was sick during Good Times’ interview with him about the state of illness in the county. Not with Covid, he clarified. 

“It’s just the common cold that my grandson gave to me,” Dr. Gordon said. “We all tested negative and he had been tested for RSV and that was negative.” 

People might be surprised to learn that in comparison to last year’s winter, there’s actually less Covid this year, as observed in the county’s wastewater. But according to Dr. Gordon, the worst is yet to come—last year, Covid cases peaked in January and February, and he expects a similar trend in the coming months.  

Dr. Gordon spoke about the county’s approach to Covid and the RSV illness rising around the nation, and more, below.

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Dr. Gordon Talks Winter Covid Questions 

There seems to be a lot of people getting Covid right now. Should people be more concerned about contracting Covid this winter versus previous years since the pandemic  began?

CAL GORDAN: What’s happened I think with Covid is that the virus continues to change and become more infectious, so it’s more easily caught. I would say there’s several good things at this point with Covid: at least 95% of people either have had Covid previously or have been vaccinated or both. And so there is some level of immunity that will serve people. Our numbers are about half of what they were last year right now.

I’m a pediatrician, and we’re having a lot of RSV and and then flu is now going up in a big way.

What should people know about the new strain COVID-19 variant known as JN.1? What is the severity of this new strain, is it more transmissible? 

CG: So the current variant is increasing in percentage, and we’ll probably get the majority variant within the next week or two. So in many respects  it’s more infectious so the vaccines aren’t necessarily going to keep you from getting the infection, but they will help keep you from getting hospitalized. 

They call it immuno-evasive: whether it’s the antibodies that people have had from prior infection or prior vaccination, may be a little bit less effective with this particular strain. 

There was a new vaccine—Novavax—that rolled out a few months ago. Do you have an estimate of how many people in the county were vaccinated with the new vaccine?

CG: For the newest up-to-date Covid vaccine at the county level, it’s 16% which is still super low. The good news is that those people who are over 65 have a vaccination rate of 41.2%.

It’s not too late to get vaccinated. The newest version of the monovalent vaccine is specifically tailored to our newer strains of viruses that are currently in the community and so they will be more effective. We have January and February ahead of us and it’s very possible that the Covid will continue to increase. We’re thrilled that our wastewater rates and our hospitalization rates are pretty level now. It’s still a prevalent virus out there and it can be serious for certain populations.

Wth the new strains of Covid, how long can it be typical for someone to have symptoms? How long do symptoms last before it starts looking like long-Covid? 

CG: After three or four weeks, it’s potentially turning into a long Covid. So long COVID can be a matter of many weeks, to many months. 

I would say most people have symptoms for at least a couple of weeks, in terms of the effects and usually you’re starting to feel better by the second week. Your fevers are gone, you’re gonna have some congestion, but you’re making slow progress. 

Is Santa Cruz County experiencing a surge in respiratory viruses like that which is being seen around the state, including RSV and pneumonia?

CG:  We mirror the state pretty much with RSV. Typically, high cases are right there in the middle of the winter, like most flus. But since the pandemic, RSV is presenting much earlier—last year, it peaked higher than the current influx we’re experiencing right now. But in the county, it appears that it’s still there. We’re not necessarily seeing a downward trend per se. But accordinging to our wastewater samples there may be some indication that it is starting to go down, which would be good because then we would just have the flu and the Covid content in terms of the major infections.

What can you tell me about COVID hospitalizations in the past month and also hospitalizations from flus like RSV?

CG: We haven’t had a significant uptick that we’ve seen so far. The RSV hospitalizations are pretty small. Oftentimes, children may get hospitalized elsewhere if they’re severely ill. But the numbers are very small at this point too. And so I would say compared to last quarter, overall, at this time we’re much better than we were last winter, but again we have a couple more months ahead of us. At this time last winter, we had significantly more hospitalizations from RSV, flu and Covid.  

What do you credit the lower hospitalization numbers to this year?

CG: I think it’s really hard to say. Covid in many respects doesn’t have a predictive kind of pattern. I would say probably in part, the level of immunity that the general population has towards Covid. I think the vaccines absolutely helped reduce the level of severity of hospitalizations. 

You mentioned that the months that typically see the highest rates of Covid cases are coming in January in February. What preparations are being taken at hospitals and with doctors and nurses to prepare for that? 

CG: One area we have focused on for many months has been to work with our skilled nursing facilities to make sure staff and residents are vaccinated, that they have Paxlovid on hand.That’s really the probably the most at-risk population.  We’ve encouraged our staff in the hospitals to be vaccinated. Oftentimes part of the hospital’s capacity to take care of patients is dependent on how many staff are not ill and the rest so we want them to be vaccinated, if at all possible. 

What would you recommend people do to stay healthy? 

CG: If you haven’t gotten vaccinated for flu or Covid or if you’re eligible for RSV, get the vaccine. Consider masking in public settings, especially indoor settings.

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Aiyana Moya
News Editor
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