Santa Clara County health officials Wednesday said two cases of a new South African COVID-19 variant have been identified in Santa Clara and Alameda counties — the first in California.
So far, one case has been identified in each county, respectively.
This is at least the second new strain health officials have identified in Santa Clara County: In January, Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody announced the discovery of a new strain, and indicated it played a significant role in several large, local outbreaks.
Cody said the new variant, B.1.351, was identified at a lab at Stanford University. A routine COVID-19 test doesn’t immediately indicate the variant of a positive test — it must be further studied through a process called genomic sequencing.
Only a small portion of positive COVID-19 tests go through this longer process, so Cody said the county does not have a complete picture of its potential spread.
“The encouraging news from our end is that this person, upon returning, immediately quarantined,” Cody said. “Therefore we don’t know any opportunities for further spread in our community.”
The individual had recently traveled internationally but Cody declined to say where, adding it was “complicated.”
Cody also said there was no evidence the Santa Clara County case was related to the case in Alameda County. The latter also had a history of international travel in January.
“We know this virus will continue to adapt and change,” Cody said. “That’s its job … it really underscores how important it is, even though we’re tired, even though we’ve been doing this for a year, that we have to continue to take all of these precautions.”
Recovering from the surge
The discovery comes amid a flurry of COVID-19 developments this week.
In addition to the new variant, health officials are concerned about a potential drop in how many vaccines the county receives from the state, and a decline in people getting tested.
“We’re still recovering from the greatest and most deadly surge that we’ve experienced to date,” Cody told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday. She added it’s likely Santa Clara County will remain in the state’s most-restrictive purple tier for the foreseeable future.
Cody warned people to remain vigilant even as Lunar New Year celebrations take place Friday and over the weekend.
“Most importantly, please do not gather indoors,” Cody said. “I know this is a hard thing to do because the holidays are meant for us to gather, but we still must continue all we’ve been doing to protect our families, our communities and ourselves from the devastating effects of COVID-19.”
Health officials said the county’s vaccine allocation might drop over the next two weeks due to a change in how the state calculates distribution.
To date, the state has sent vaccines to counties based on a formula that takes into account the amount of health care workers in Phase 1A of the vaccine tiers, along with the population of residents 65 and older.
That formula also counted health care workers that work in the county but live outside of it. Santa Clara County has a higher number of health care workers who fell under that category, which may have increased the doses it received under the initial formula.
But starting Tuesday, the state began to phase out health care workers from that formula and base it solely on each county’s population of residents 65 years and older.
Santa Clara County has more than 300,000 residents in that age category. The change will take place over the next two weeks.
Based on the new formula, Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, Santa Clara County’s COVID-19 testing officer, said he estimates the county could soon be receiving at least a few thousand fewer doses per week than it is now.
Currently, the county receives more than 40,000 doses per week.
Health officials recently called on the federal government to more than double its vaccine allocation to the state, saying the county has the capacity, just not enough doses, to get most residents vaccinated by August.
“We still expect by next week that (the county health system) will have 10,000 appointments available,” said County Executive Jeff Smith. “Obviously this all depends on the amount of vaccine we get… (which is) up in the air at this point.”
On Tuesday, the county opened the vaccination site at Levi’s Stadium, which eventually will be able to accommodate 15,000 vaccination appointments per day. Currently, the site offers 500 vaccinations a day, according to Santa Clara County Spokesman Roger Ross.
“The strategy is to build out infrastructure and argue for the vaccine instead of waiting until we get the vaccine,” Smith said.
To date, providers in Santa Clara County have received 375,000 doses of vaccine. About 218,000 first doses have been administered, while 58,000 people have received both doses.
“Clearly, as we all know the most limiting factor in everything we’ve been doing is based on vaccine availability,” Fenstersheib said. “We pretty much are getting our information and allocations on a week-by-week basis so it’s difficult to do any long-term planning.”
Testing trending down
Fenstersheib pointed out another troubling trend: Fewer residents are getting tested for the virus.
“We have the capacity but not enough people are coming in to be tested,” Fenstersheib said.
There was a spike of residents getting tested just before the Christmas and New Year holidays, he said, but since then testing has been on a steady decline. At the County Fairgrounds testing site, for example, about 4,500 people were being tested each day.
As of Feb. 2, tests had decreased at the same site to about 2,500 per day.
This is not the time for people to let down their guards, Fenstersheib said.
“We need to get the message out that people need to continue to be tested even though we’re vaccinating,” he said. “Especially people on the front lines need to come in and get tested at least monthly, if not more often, if necessary.”