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April 23, 2021

Covid-19 Closes Santa Cruz County Businesses, ICUs Ready for Surge

By Jacob Pierce, Good Times Editor

Businesses all over Santa Cruz County are getting ready to close down or reduce their operations, as a new stay-at-home order takes effect.

The order goes live at 11:59pm Thursday, now that the Bay Area region hit a threshold wherein less than 15% of its intensive care unit (ICU) beds are available. In a press conference Thursday, Public Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel acknowledged that the restrictions mean hardship not just for businesses, but for everyone in the holiday season. “It’s a really hard time not to be with the people that we love,” she said.

Under the state-mandated Covid-19 restrictions, all in-person dining must stop, and retail businesses must not operate above 20% capacity. Vacationing in hotels, motels and short-term rentals are forbidden. Everyone is supposed to stay home, except to take essential trips, like outdoor exercise and trips to the grocery store, although people may drive around to look at Christmas lights or go to drive-in movies, Newel said.

Indoor dining has already been closed for weeks. Now, Patrice Boyle, who owns the Soif and La Posta restaurants, says she and her team are prepared to savor one last night of patio dining Thursday evening. Both restaurants will remain open for pickup orders, but she hopes the new restrictions don’t last much longer than three weeks. “We aren’t structured to survive on takeout. No dine-in dinner house is,” she says.

Boyle adds that some Soif and La Posta servers will be transitioning into being delivery drivers.

“Restaurants have been taking it on the chin from a closure standpoint and from an economic standpoint,” she says. “And we’ve had a lot of support from the community, and we need continued support. I encourage everyone to order dinner out at least two or three times a week from a local restaurant. If we want to have that part of our social network contest, they need support.”

In a statement to Good Times, Economic Recovery Council Chair Kris Reyes says he fully understands that the community and the country are in a state of crisis and that it’s important to get a handle on the pandemic in order to save lives. Still, he worries that the new restrictions unfairly punish small business owners, restaurants in particular.

“The evidence demonstrates that the spread of Covid-19 is happening most frequently from close contact, mixed household gatherings such as parties,” writes Reyes, who is also a spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Seaside Company, which owns the Beach Boardwalk, which was barely open this year at all. “Given the evidence, I’m not sure how it makes sense that it’s OK to go inside a Best Buy to purchase a TV but we can’t support local restaurants by sitting outside while masked and properly spaced. I hope Governor Newsom knows what he’s doing with these new restrictions on small businesses. So far, I think that’s debatable and local businesses may be running out of time.”

SHOT IN THE ARM

Covid-19 is surging nationally, across California and in Santa Cruz County, right in the middle of the winter holiday season that’s normally marked by shopping and gathering with family.

There have been a few bright spots, however—some of which Newel highlighted Thursday. Three weeks ago, the county did double the testing capacity of the OptumServe testing site in Watsonville. A new free walk-in OptumServe site will open Monday, Dec. 21 in North County, although Newel said it was too early to offer any specifics, including the location. “We’re in the final phases of finishing up that contract,” she said.

Also, some eligible health care workers got their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine Wednesday. The county has begun part one of the first phase of vaccine distribution. The second phase will include other critical workers, like police officers.

Deputy County Health Officer David Ghilarducci said in Thursday’s press conference that he expects the vaccine to be ready for widespread distribution by the spring or summer months.

“And that will really, I think, be the turning point for this vaccine,” he said.

There have been 6,455 known Covid-19 cases in Santa Cruz County, of which 1,724 are known active cases, according to information last updated Wednesday night by county health officials. Sixty-four people in the county have died from Covid-19, 270 have required hospitalization, and 4,668 have recovered.

Statewide as of Wednesday, there have been 1,723,362 Covid-19 cases and 21,860 deaths, according to the California Department of Public Health.

LITTLE WIGGLE ROOM

The official count for state-licensed ICU beds is 22, Newel said Thursday—16 at Dominican Hospital and six at Watsonville Community Hospital.

Those are the figures that the state uses for the trigger that created the new stay-at-home order. The county’s actual surge capacity to create more ICUs on an emergency basis could be much larger—although it’s unclear just how much larger. “There’s lots of ways to measure this,” Ghillarducci said.

Newel said she can count four ways to measure ICU availability:

  1. The first is the state-licensed ICU capacity which is 22 beds—16 at Dominican Hospital and six at Watsonville Community Hospital.
  2. The second is what’s called “flex capacity,” which is the amount of beds that the state has licensed the county’s hospitals to grow to; that number is 26 countywide, including 20 at Dominican.
  3. Beyond that, hospitals have a larger “surge capacity” that they may expand to—provided they have adequate staff and also on ventilators, beds, cardiac monitors and other equipment.
  4. There’s also a maximum capacity, which is closer to 60, a number that the county provided earlier in the year, based only on the supply of equipment, not staff.

Health Services Agency Director Mimi Hall said, however, that it’s really staff that’s the limiting factor at this point.

“You can have beds and ventilators. The limiting factor we’re experiencing is not enough staff,” she said, “because ICUs require a different kind of proportion of staff to patients. As Covid spreads in the community, it’s also spreading to healthcare workers. So that really is the limiting factor, more so than the number of beds or space or ventilators.”

Hall said that, as the size of the pandemic grows, it becomes increasingly likely that hospital staff will come down with Covid-19 themselves and be unable to take care of others.

Ghillarducci says hospitals already experienced staffing problems over the summer due to summer wildfires that displaced many county residents and put a strain on resources. Now, he worries about workers who may have to miss work to take care of loved ones if they should fall ill with Covid-19. 

And as the tough year draws to a close, Newel says some workers may want time off for the holidays. Others may be less likely to accept overtime assignments.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is surging, all while hospitals feel these other staffing pressures —a complicating factor that Ghillarducci, Hall and Newel have all spent a lot of time thinking about. Under these circumstances, one mistake could be incredibly costly.

When asked about a possible outbreak among Dominican Hospital nurses stemming from a trip out of the country taken by employees, Newel confirmed to reporters that she had heard a rumor about such an incident, but she could not confirm its veracity.

“Like any other essential workers or any other members of our community, health care workers have some lapses in judgment or make decisions that aren’t in line with the legal guidance—it happens to everyone,” she said. “We just need to move on from there.”

Claire Henry, a spokesperson Dominican Hospital, did not confirm or deny any information this week, citing health privacy guidelines. She did not respond to an email seeking clarification by deadline Thursday.

A new law, Assembly Bill 685, will require California employers to release information to their employees and local health agencies when they encounter a positive case in the workplace. The new law takes effect in January.

The county already saw one high-profile outbreak recently—at the Santa Cruz Main Jail.

Newel said after Thursday’s press conference that contact tracing has shown the recent cluster of Covid-19 cases among Santa Cruz County correctional officers stemmed from three separate gatherings, not one event. 

“So we can’t pin the positives even on one event,” she said. “It was three separate exposure events.”

Sheriff Jim Hart has said his office will do its one investigation following the contact tracing process. No Santa Cruz County inmates have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic began.

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