SANTA CRUZ (CBS SF) — Santa Cruz County health officer Dr. Gail Newel said Thursday that she is worried because COVID-19 cases are steadily growing in the county.

The county currently has had a total of 2,319 COVID-19 cases, 309 of which are still active, according to the county dashboard.

COVID-19 rates were at the highest at the end of July and saw a steady decline through August, but now cases are on the rise again.

“This seems to be for a number of factors that are still under investigation,” Newel said. “It seems to be that there were some cases associated to Labor Day gatherings. Others have to due with fire evacuations, including in at least one evacuation center and in the most common method of spread — though households.”

On Sept. 17, the county had 44 new COVID-19 cases — the highest number since the start of the pandemic.

“When you compare whether we have exponential threat, meaning how exponential our threat it, we are one of the worst-performing counties right now,” Newel said.

The county also announced its ninth COVID-19-related death on Thursday — a Latinx woman in her early 60s who had pre-existing conditions.

There may be two additional COVID-19 deaths in the county, raising the number to 11, but Newel said she is waiting on the death certificate to confirm whether they were county residents and if the virus was the cause of death.

There was also an outbreak in one of the county’s seven skilled-nursing facilities, Watsonville Post Acute. Out of the 73 residents in the center, 27 tested positive as well as six staff members, according to Newel.

“We have the potential of having many more COVID-19-positive residents and staff at that facility, although all precautions have been taken as they were previously,” Newel said. “There were no relaxed guidelines at Watsonville Acute … we will probably never know how it started…it’s most likely due to staff because residents are not coming and going.”

So far, there have been no deaths from the outbreak and all the other skilled-nursing facilities have been informed.

But it is not all bad news for the county. Since it has been placed in the red tier by the state, there have been gradual reopening of indoor businesses and 14 schools will resume on campus as early as next week.

Most public schools, however, do not have plans to open until the end of the calendar year, and those that have been impacted by the wildfires say reopening is not the priority.

“Personally, I am happy to see a few schools reopen at this point so we can get our feet wet with how we are going to handle that from a public health perspective, making sure we have enough staff for contact tracing and case investigation,” Newel said.

To mitigate the spread, the county is encouraging all residents to avoid gatherings and get tested, especially as the flu and holiday season approaches.

“We cannot be complacent as a county,” Newel said.

The state will soon release guidelines for Halloween with specific directions on how to trick-or-treat safely. Newel said she does not know what exactly the directive entails but is certain that any gatherings, regardless of size, are prohibited.

Residents are also encouraged to get the flu vaccine to stay healthy and not overwhelm county hospitals. Most insured residents can get a free flu shot from their provider. For those who are not insured or underinsured, the county offers flu shots for free or little cost at its clinics.

To find where to get a fly shot, people can visit vaccinefinder.org.

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