San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are approaching lower COVID-19 infection rates that could move them into the most lenient yellow tier for opening the economy under state COVID-19 guidelines by the beginning of May at the earliest.
Much of that continued forward momentum is contingent on the availability of vaccines, continued public involvement in testing for the virus and buy-in to being vaccinated, county officials said.
San Mateo County's COVID-19 positivity rate is about 0.9% overall and 1.4% in the state's lowest Healthy Places Index census tracts, which tracks community health and poverty, county Chief of Health Louise Rogers told the Board of Supervisors. Counties' positivity rates must remain below 1% in combination with other factors for three weeks before moving into the next least-restrictive tier.
Santa Clara County, which has hit yellow tier numbers at times, saw a slight rise in its overall positivity rate from below 1% to 1.2% in the past two weeks, COVID-19 testing and vaccine officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib said during his county's Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday afternoon.
The counties still face multiple challenges. Health officers remain watchful as infection rates rise in some other states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, Colorado and Illinois, in addition to New England states. Both counties continue to face precarious vaccine supplies, waning public interest in being tested for the virus and some public hesitancy in getting the vaccine.
About 58% of Santa Clara County residents and 63.2% of San Mateo County residents ages 16 and up have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, health officials said.
In Santa Clara County, Fenstersheib said testing for the virus has gone up "slightly" after a significant decline. In a mid-April statement, he said testing was down 34% from two months ago. Some of the current rise is likely due to Stanford University testing faculty and students regularly, he added on Tuesday.
In San Mateo County, the number of people being tested for the virus has declined by 10% since Rogers' last report four weeks ago, she said.
Testing remains an important way to track how the virus — and its more contagious emerging variants — are spreading in communities, Rogers said. And although the majority of adults have been vaccinated with at least one dose, she cautioned against complacency.
COVID-19 testing should continue until the county has reached its 90% goal of all residents being vaccinated —and until the science can fully explain the duration and efficacy of the vaccines, she added. People who have been vaccinated can still acquire and transmit the disease. Even if one has already been vaccinated, it's important to be tested if they show any symptoms, she said.
In both counties, availability of vaccines continues to be uncertain. San Mateo County's supplies from the state have decreased by one-third in the past few weeks, said Dr. Anand Chabra, the county's COVID-19 mass vaccination section chief. The vaccination supply has also been complicated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation to pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine. Also known as the Janssen vaccine, it has been suspected in blood clots in six women ages 18 to 48, with one death, he said. The county health care system received just 11,080 doses last week, which does not include doses at providers such as Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Kaiser Permanente and pharmacies, he added.
Fenstersheib said Santa Clara County's allotment of 300,000 doses through the federal Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), which it received on April 13, enabled vaccinating 40,000 people on April 15, with a seven-day average of 27,000 vaccinations administered per day. The county is currently in discussions with the HRSA to receive a commensurate number of second doses, County Executive Jeff Smith said. He cautioned the county doesn't know if the supplies will fall off in the coming weeks if relying only on state-issued allotments.
Vaccine hesitancy is also a concern, both county officials said. During Santa Clara County's door-to-door outreach program in census tracts hardest hit by the virus, 8% of those canvassed said they won't or are now hesitant to have the vaccine. Most who expressed reticence were young people, said Brain Darrow, a program manager in the County Executive's Office. He posited that with 76.1% of people in the most vulnerable age group of 65 and older having received at least one vaccine dose, some younger residents are feeling less of an impetus.
Rogers of San Mateo County summed up the sentiment the health officers want to convey to the public. While much progress has been made, there are still many variables that could reverse the forward momentum. It's still a race to get everyone vaccinated before a variant emerges that is resistant to the vaccine or is much more deadly.
"Forty percent of adult residents need to be vaccinated. We still have a long way to go," she said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.