SANTA CRUZ (CBS SF) — The COVID-19 pandemic rolls on but there are positive developments in Santa Cruz County, health officials said on Thursday.

Case counts have fallen by percent in the last two weeks, the adjusted case rate is at 24.4 and if cases don’t rise, some schools could submit waivers to reopen on Monday, County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said.

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“That’s an exciting benchmark that we’ve crossed, and I expect that the rates will continue to drop and will stay there,” Newel said.

With the adjusted case rate in the county under 25, elementary schools can apply to reopen and Newel said she was prepared to support reopening.

Once they reopen, schools will not be required to shut down again, regardless of surges or changing health orders. But grades 7 through 12 will have to wait until the county is in the red tier for five days and has a case rate below 7.0, something Newel does not anticipate happening anytime soon.

This is because state COVID-19 renderings predict that there will be another surge in late March and increased hospitalizations and deaths in late April.

“We usually see that four-week lag between case rates, and deaths or hospitalizations, so we need to be extra vigilant,” Newel said.

In the meantime, vaccination efforts have also ramped up in the county. A new vaccination center will open next week through a partnership with the state.

The county fairgrounds will also be open next week on Feb. 10 for vaccine appointments. Additional information for both sites will be available next week on the county’s website.

So far, about four to five percent of the county’s population — approximately 23,000 to 30,000 people — have received the vaccine, Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci said.

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“We do have a ways to go as you can tell, but we’re seeing some scale up process, and really tremendous work…in terms of getting these other vaccination sites open,” Ghilarducci said.

He noted that the county does have the manpower to support additional vaccinations, but it needs more vaccines — a similar problem Santa Clara County’s health officer Dr. Sara Cody mentioned during her respective press briefing Thursday.

With limited vaccine supply, the county is focusing efforts on vaccinating residents 75 years and older because they are the most at risk.

“We’re also outreaching to those who are 65 and that’s in the South County zip code,” said Jennifer Herrera, the county’s chief of public health. “The South County community has been the most effective by COVID-19 and want to make sure that our elders in that region have a chance to have access to vaccines.”

Individuals 65 years and older make up 81% of deaths and around 60% of hospitalizations, according to state data.

Newel said the county is adhering to directives in terms of vaccine prioritization, and as more vaccines become available, eligibility will expand.

Ghilarducci also mentioned that the substantial decrease in COVID-19 cases is not because of additional vaccines, but because of behavioral changes and adherence to safety protocols and health orders.

“It’s going to take more vaccines before we get to a point where we can start returning to normal and so we ask for continued vigilance,” Ghilarducci said.

For more vaccine information or to book vaccination appointments visit santacruzhealth.org/coronavirusvaccine.

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