Santa Cruz County confirmed 96 new COVID-19 infections during the week ending Thursday, less than a quarter of the cases that were confirmed here during each of the first two weeks of the year.

The rapid decline in new cases follows an anticipated holiday-season surge, and comes as the county ramps up a vaccination effort that had administered more than 5,500 doses as of Thursday.

Still, a pair of key metrics remain stubbornly unchanged, suggesting that the number of infections in the community may be undercounted as the public health emphasis shifts from testing to vaccination.

For example, the county confirmed 13 deaths of local residents due to COVID-19 during the week leading up to Thursday – a ratio of one death per every 7.4 new cases. During the first two weeks of the year, the ratio was one death per every 28.6 cases.

In addition, the percentage of people in Santa Cruz County who received a positive result on a COVID-19 test rose to 22.6 percent during the most recent week for which data was available.

That figure, published Thursday by the Arizona Department of Health Services, refers to tests taken during the week of Jan. 17-23. The test positivity rate for the previous week in Santa Cruz County was 21.1 percent – a number that was revised upward after initially being reported at 20.9 percent.

It was the 10th-consecutive week that the positive test rate was above 20 percent in Santa Cruz County.

According to ADHS standards, a test positivity rate less than 5 percent represents “minimal” transmission in a community, while a rate of 5-10 percent shows “moderate” transmission. Anything above 10 percent puts a community in the “substantial” transmission category.

During a public meeting with the County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Dr. Eladio Pereira of the Mariposa Community Health Center emphasized the importance of prevention measures in containing the spread of the virus.

“Prevention is still key, particularly if the variants become more prevalent,” he said, referring to new strains of the coronavirus spreading from other countries into the United States. “We still need to wear masks, wash your hands, keep your distance, things of that nature.”

He explained that, while some people in the community have already gotten the Moderna vaccines into their arms, it didn’t entirely prevent them from catching the coronavirus.

“You could still become infected, but what the vaccine does is it reduces the potential for severe illness and death,” he said.

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