San Benito County faces another rising surge of Covid-19 cases, driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant of the virus, according to authorities.
The wave of new cases hasn’t resulted in a major strain on the local hospital or healthcare providers—largely because Omicron doesn’t appear to be as harmful as previous variants—but local officials are as wary as always of the virus’ potential to overwhelm available staff and resources.
And while the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has led to more “breakthrough” cases among vaccinated people worldwide, public health experts note that vaccinations are still the best way to prevent serious illness or death from the coronavirus.
As of Jan. 6, the county has seen a total of 9,034 cases of Covid-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the county’s website. Of those, 355 people have been hospitalized and 86 have died with Covid-19.
Of those who have been hospitalized, only 22, or six percent, were fully vaccinated, says the county’s data. Four of the county’s deaths were of fully vaccinated residents.
Detailed data from the California Department of Public Health show the biggest spike yet in recent weeks in Covid-19 cases in San Benito County. The local seven-day average rate of cases per 100,000 residents has jumped from less than 25 in early December to 170 cases as of Jan. 12.
Statewide, the rate of positive Covid-19 cases is about 193 per 100,000 residents, says the CDPH website.
The test positivity rate in San Benito is also sharply on the rise. As of Jan. 12, 28.2% of Covid-19 tests in San Benito County are positive, according to the CDPH. That’s a 2.8% increase from a week earlier, and higher than the statewide test positivity rate of 23.1 percent.
San Benito County Public Health Officer Dr. George Gellert said the Omicron variant of the airborne virus is up to three times more contagious than the previous Delta variant, which caused the prior global surge of Covid-19 last spring and summer.
The Omicron variant has only been confirmed in two cases so far in San Benito County, but Gellert thinks it is driving the current Covid-19 surge.
“Omicron is… capable of a degree of vaccine evasion such that, while less severe, can drive high infection incidence and high volume of people affected,” Gellert said in response to questions from the Free Lance. “People who are not vaccinated at all, or only partly having not gotten the booster, (comprise) those who are getting more severely ill, getting hospitalized or dying. If you are unvaccinated you are literally gambling you will not have a long, miserable stay in an ICU being ventilated and feeling like you’re suffocating, or potentially dying. And with Omicron, the odds are against and not with you. Anyone unvaccinated who doesn’t end up at the Hazel Hawkins (Emergency Department) should buy a lottery ticket.”
County Supervisor Bob Tiffany agreed with the public health community’s strong recommendation for residents to get vaccinated, and seek booster shots if eligible.
Tiffany—who accompanies Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki on a supervisors’ Covid-19 ad hoc committee—noted that the seven-day average case rate in San Benito is higher than other nearby counties. The rate in Monterey County is 55.9 cases per 100,000 residents; Santa Cruz is 129.5; and Santa Clara is 163.3, according to the CDPH website.
“What we’re seeing is there are significantly more breakthrough cases with people who are vaccinated,” Tiffany said. “But if you are vaccinated—and also if you’ve had a booster shot—your odds of being hospitalized or getting seriously ill and dying are still much reduced.”
As of Jan. 12, there have been more than 102,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines administered in San Benito County, according to the CDPH.
The recent wave of Omicron cases has not yet forced the state to re-impose public gathering restrictions on San Benito County, or close the local schools.
“(We) in Public Health desperately want the schools to remain open with kids learning in person, which is a critical, essential part of their development, social, physical and mental health well-being,” Gellert said. “If Omicron is not pushed out by a later variant that is highly contagious and clinically severe/deadly, we may be on a path to where Covid-19 becomes endemic or like other respiratory infections like the flu—we fight it aggressively still but it burns at a low level of incidence that does not disrupt most people’s lives, schools or the economy.”
However, the public health officer noted that so far, Covid-19 has proven to be anything but predictable.
“Nobody knows what is coming, and the 48% of humanity that remains unvaccinated are incubators for new and potentially more severe variants,” Gellert said. “Until the large majority of humanity as a whole has been vaccinated or developed natural immunity from infection, we are playing viral variant roulette. We could get even milder variants than Omicron or we could get ones more harmful and vaccine evading. Those are the unvarnished facts. We are hopeful that the latter will not occur, but we would be irresponsible not to continue our efforts to get every San Benito resident vaccinated and boosted, because only then are they and their families protected against severe disease when breakthrough infections occur.”
By the numbers
28.2%: Covid-19 positivity rate, San Benito County
23.2%: Positivity rate, state of California
355: Patients hospitalized with Covid-19 in San Benito County, since March 2020
22: Hospitalized patients in San Benito who were fully vaccinated
86: Deaths by Covid-19 in San Benito County
4: Local deaths among fully vaccinated
*Sources: San Benito County, California Department of Public Health