Working through the unknown has become the “norm” for Dr. Sara Cody, as the director of Santa Clara County’s Public Health Department, now a household name in California that's also recognizable across the country.
In fact, the last year has brought many firsts: her first press conference, first experience as an international meme and her first time contending with a global pandemic creeping into the United States right in her backyard.
“I remember that about a year ago, we felt quite blind; we didn't know what was going on, because we had so few tools available, and most importantly, we didn't have much in the way of lab testing,” Cody said during Joint Venture Silicon Valley’s annual State of the Valley event Wednesday. “The ways in which we've needed to respond have been unprecedented, and extraordinarily difficult and extraordinarily uncomfortable.”
Now the country has reached its first anniversary of Covid-19’s descent on the U.S.
Santa Clara County is no longer one of the biggest hotspots in California, as it was in the first months of the pandemic, but old challenges still linger and new questions have emerged. Among them: when to reopen schools; how common is reinfection; who gets priority in the vaccine rollout; and what will come with emerging virus variations?
Cody, who has been the county’s top health official since 2013, recounted the biggest milestones of the past year, like the first national shelter-in-place order on March 16 that made her either wildly popular or unpopular, depending on who one asked. That order, “in retrospect, was the easiest part” of her pandemic response, she said.
Santa Clara County became home to the first known U.S. death from the virus a little more than a year ago and has since tallied 1,700 deaths and nearly 110,000 positive cases, according to county data. The U.S. recently passed 500,000 deaths from the disease, and 50,000 of those were in California—the most of any state, according to the New York Times.
“We all talk about building a plane while flying and how difficult it is, but responding to this pandemic has really felt like building a whole fleet while trying to fly them in formation,” Cody said. “There's been so much infrastructure that's needed to be built – just in-time infrastructure –because the truth is, it’s been revealed is that the public health infrastructure that's needed simply doesn't exist.”
Today, however, there are some things Cody says she knows for certain.
For starters, people need to continue wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings, likely for months to come, she said. Infection will still be traveling around the county during that time, especially among frontline workers who live in crowded, multi-generational homes, according to Cody.
While vaccines started rolling out in Santa Clara County before the end of 2020, the ever-changing protocols from state and federal leaders have frustrated the local rollout, she said. The county will transition into the next phase of vaccinations, known as Phase 1B, at the beginning of March. So far, around 53 percent of county residents aged 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Vaccine supplies are still nowhere near demand, especially in places with high infection rates like Gilroy and East San Jose. But despite the hurdles, Cody said she never would have guessed the country and region would have come so far in less than a year into the national crisis.
“If there could be anything wonderful in such a devastating and deadly pandemic, it’s that we have a safe and effective vaccine–two of them,” she said. “I think soon we'll have three and perhaps more.”
That good news remains bookended by the pandemic’s recurring theme: uncertainty about the future.
“It's difficult to even think about, to be honest; so many families have experienced so much sadness and so much loss, not just from losing someone to Covid, but from illness and from the anxiety of the pandemic,” Cody said. “It's been enormously, enormously challenging. I think that we do have a chance to return to a normal, but this has been a national trauma, and we’re not going to be the same.”