Santa Cruz County reports 16th death in Watsonville skilled nursing facility coronavirus outbreak

WATSONVILLE — The County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency reported Friday that a 16th person has died in relation to the Watsonville Post Acute Center COVID-19 outbreak that started in September.

A man in his 90s that had several underlying health conditions in addition to a positive case of COVID-19 died at a local hospital Oct. 20, according to county spokesman Jason Hoppin.

The county has to wait for each death certificate and note whether the virus was a component before adding it to the dashboard, which is why the news came 10 days after the death.

Hoppin said Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel alluded to the state of the outbreak during her press conference announcing the possibility of the county moving to the orange tier of the state coronavirus measurement model Tuesday. At that time, there were still people in the hospital but no new infections had been reported in over a week.

“But we are not out of the woods, she said,” Hoppin recounted Newel’s remarks on Friday afternoon.

Hoppin was unsure upon query whether there were still active cases at the Watsonville skilled nursing facility, but he said that 50 total residents and 21 total staff members had been infected since the first cases were reported Sept. 18.

“It’s a very unfortunate tragedy,” Hoppin said.

As of deadline, Santa Cruz County health officials reported 2,884 cases of COVID-19, with 226 of those cases being active. Nearly 190 of the cases were severe enough to require hospitalization. Nearly 60,000 tests conducted in county labs have come back negative. Person-to-person contact through shared households remains the most likely source of exposure to COVID-19 in the county.

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Santa Cruz County Enters Orange Tier; Latest COVID-19 Case Count

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, CA — More services can now increase indoor capacity after Santa Cruz County moved into the less-restrictive orange tier Monday.

The orange tier is the second-lowest tier in the state four-tiered, color-coded risk system and indicates a “moderate” COVID-19 risk level. Santa Cruz County is seeing reduced COVID-19 transmission levels, but cases are expected to increase into the winter months, the county said in a statement. Nationally, cases have already begun to rise.

The news came hours after county officials announced plans to ramp up testing for the coronavirus and said that an outbreak at a Watsonville skilled nursing facility appears to have subsided.

The following reopenings are now allowed in Santa Cruz County, with safety restrictions:

  • Restaurants (half-capacity indoors)

  • Worship houses (half-capacity indoors)

  • Gyms and fitness centers (25 percent capacity or 100 people indoors; whichever is fewer)

  • Movie theaters (half-capacity indoors)

  • Museums (half-capacity indoors)

  • Retail (full capacity indoors)

  • Bars, breweries and distilleries (outdoor operations only)

  • Wineries (25 percent capacity or 100 people indoors; whichever is fewer)

  • Amusement parks (outdoors only and 25 percent capacity or 100 people; whichever is fewer)

  • Family entertainment Centers (25 percent capacity)

  • Non-essential Offices (indoors with modifications)

  • Live-audience sports (outdoors, regional visitors only; 20 percent capacity)

Residents are asked to continue wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing, staying home when sick and avoiding large group gatherings.

County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said during a Tuesday morning press conference that an outbreak at Watsonville Post Acute Center — one of seven skilled nursing facilities in the county — appears to have stabilized. No patients are currently infected and there have been no recent new infections, she said.

There were 74 residents of the center when the outbreak first began in mid-September, and 50 residents and 21 staff tested positive for COVID-19, she said. Fifteen deaths have been linked to the outbreak.

Newel said the center has followed all precautions and remained in consultation with county and state officials. The center is not accepting new patients.

“It’s a tragedy, but its probably unavoidable that this happened,” she said.

Mimi Hall, county Health Services Agency Director, announced plans to expand testing capacity in Santa Cruz County. Widespread testing is key to staying in a lesser tier, she said.

The county is seeking to add a testing site in Mid- to North County that can provide 165 tests per day, she said. Officials have also put in a request to the state health department officials to provide resources that would allow the county to double testing capacity at a Watsonville site and provide 330 tests there per day, for four days.

The University of California, Santa Cruz lab has expanded its efforts to regularly test on-campus students and staff, Hall said. The university continues to serve as a backup lab for the county and health system partners.

Newel urged residents to seek COVID-19 testing as soon as they start noticing associated symptoms and get a flu shot. People are more susceptible to COVID-19

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Santa actors were offered early vaccine as part of scrapped federal PSA campaign: HHS

Oct. 25 (UPI) — Federal health officials in a scrapped $250 million promotional campaign offered professional Santa Claus actors early access to a vaccine for COVID-19 in exchange for participating in pro-vaccine public service announcements, the Department of Health and Human Services said Sunday.

Santa Claus actors, as well as those playing Mrs. Claus and Christmas elves, were to be hired as part of a cancelled celebrity campaign to promote getting vaccinated, an HHS official told the New York Times.

The campaign was envisioned by President Donald Trump’s then-appointee Michael Caputo, a former HHS assistant secretary, who has been on medical leave since September after being diagnosed with cancer and posting conspiracy theories on his Facebook page, including a video accusing the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention of harboring a “resistance unit” seeking to undermine Trump.

The office of HHS Secretary Alex M. Azar said this week that the program had been cancelled. The Santa “collaboration will not be happening,” a spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal.

In late August, as the coronavirus pandemic peaked across parts of the United States, Caputo and the agency approached Ric Erwin, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas, to ask if members would participate in TV, radio, social media and podcast ads and live events in 35 cities.

The campaign was titled “Covid 19 Public Health and Reopening America Public Service Announcements and Advertising Campaign” designed to “defeat despair, inspire hope and achieve national recovery,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

The Santa group agreed to participate and asked to be given the vaccine early, as Santa actors had been vaccinated early in 2009 for H1N1.

The actors who play Santa are in an “at risk” category because of their “advanced age” and “underlying health issues,” Erwin wrote in a newsletter for Santa actors.

“Furthermore, health care officials all concurred that our high rate of interpersonal contact with young children (who are notorious vectors for disease dissemination) further highlighted our need for the vaccine,” he added.

Christmas seasonal workers are watching their livelihoods disappear as stores like Macy’s have cancelled in-person visits with Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and their elves. Some tech-savvy Santas have offered a Zoom alternative or pre-recorded video messages.

Caputo told Erwin in August that the vaccine was likely to be approved in the late fall and that Santas and other seasonal workers would have it by Thanksgiving, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“If you and your colleagues are not essential workers, I don’t know what is,” Caputo said on a call, which was recorded by Erwin. “I cannot wait to tell the president,” Caputo added. “He’s going to love this.”

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