A mask-mandate sign setup outside a gift store in Downtown Willow Glen, Calif., on July 16, 2021. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

Santa Cruz County health officials floated the specter Thursday of a new indoor mask mandate if COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to increase locally.

Like most other jurisdictions, the county’s current wave of cases and hospitalizations is being driven disproportionately by unvaccinated residents, who are more susceptible to the ultra-contagious delta variant but also orders of magnitude more likely to develop serious illness or die as a result of infection.

County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel said during a virtual briefing that the county’s number of new cases has increased 10-fold in recent weeks, ballooning from between zero and four cases per day in May, June and early July to now roughly 30 new cases per day.

Newel also noted that the new wave of cases has different characteristics than previous waves, with a majority of new cases coming in the more mountainous north county, among white residents and among 25-to-50 year olds, who are both less likely than those in other age demographics to wear a face covering indoors and to be vaccinated.

“If our health care system experiences further strain, local orders may need to be placed for mandatory masking and other restrictions on business or others,” Newel said. “We’re hoping not to do this, but we’re counting on our community to follow recommendations.”

Newel argued that the county does not want to become “distracted” with a new indoor mask mandate, as Los Angeles County and counties in the Bay Area have already implemented, and the backlash and difficult enforcement that would follow.

She added that those who are primarily spreading and contracting the virus right now — unvaccinated residents — will also be less likely to respect a new mask mandate even if she issues one.

“I don’t think that an order will necessarily change behavior of our residents,” Newel said. “I think the same folks who are not wearing a mask now probably wouldn’t wear a mask if I issued the order.”

Newel did note that in mulling over a mask mandate, she will consider Los Angeles County’s hospitalizations, which stabilized roughly three weeks after issuing such a mandate.

Among the roughly 68 percent of county residents age 12 and up who have been fully vaccinated, county Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci acknowledged some impatience and frustration at the remaining vaccine holdouts driving the current surge in cases.

Ghilarducci noted that many holdouts among the vaccine-eligible population are struggling with misinformation about both the virus and the three available vaccines, but the downsides of staying unvaccinated will continue making themselves clear as time goes by.

“I often feel the same way,” Ghilarducci said of the impatience toward holdouts. “But we need to take a step back and take a deep breath and understand that there are many complex reasons why people haven’t taken the opportunity to get vaccinated and try to remain patient.”

The surge in cases and hospitalizations is also weighing on health care workers, county officials said. Health care providers have the beds, the ventilators and the other supplies they need, but may not have the staff right now to properly care for all of their patients.

Ghilarducci noted that in addition to the increase in hospitalized COVID-19 patients, local hospitals are also caring for patients who have simply put off medical care for the last 18 months.

“Our health care workers, and our hospitals in particular, have been through a brutal year, and they’re still trying to recover from that,” he said. “People are on leaves of absence, people have resigned from health care because this is too much. So it just is putting a big strain on our system.”

As of Thursday, 17,272 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed countywide, including 209 deaths. Two of those deaths were reported Monday, the county’s first COVID-related deaths since May.

Roughly 687 known cases of the virus remain active in Santa Cruz County.