Coronavirus Cancels One Cruise Ship in Santa Barbara, 10 More to Go

No Confirmed Cases but COVID-19 Presence Assumed

On Tuesday evening, Public Health Deputy Director Paige Batson, pictured here with County Health Official Dr. Henning Ansorg on March 6, announced medical providers were prepared to erect tents and utilize empty hotel rooms in the COVID-19 "surge." | Credit: Erica Urech

The leading lights of Santa Barbara’s health-care universe ​— ​some dramatically attired in white lab coats ​— ​took their message about the gathering coronavirus pandemic to the County Board of Supervisors first thing Tuesday morning and later in the day to the Santa Barbara City Council. Their remarks were, in equal turns, both reassuring and alarming.

The good news, the elected officials were told, is that Santa Barbara has no confirmed cases of coronavirus and no suspected cases. The number of test kits now available has increased dramatically over the past week. The three virus swab tests have come back negative. Santa Barbara seems to have an adequate supply of medical gowns, gloves, masks, and goggles. Countywide, Santa Barbara has 62 hospital rooms equipped for the isolation and negative ventilation flow the virus demands. Of those, Cottage Health has 47.

To date, San Luis Obispo County in the north has no reported cases. Ventura County, to the south, has just one. “We are well prepared,” declared Dr. Henning Ansorg, Santa Barbara County’s Health Officer. “This is what we have been trained to do.” Ansorg cited his department’s ability to contain potential outbreaks of the H1N1 flu, Ebola, MRSA and tuberculosis in the past. 

Ansorg wields the legal authority to declare a local public health emergency; he is the one who can impose a policy of “social distancing.” And it is Ansorg who is empowered to declare a quarantine. For the time being, Ansorg made it clear he is not ready to pull any of those triggers. The data to justify it, he said, does not yet exist. That will happen when Santa Barbara County confirms its first case and when Ventura and San Luis Obispo begin reporting non-travel-related infections.

Given the rapid escalation of the disease, that remains only a matter of when, and not if. 

Dr. David Fisk, Cottage Health’s director of infectious diseases, told the elected officials that he thinks the virus has been in Santa Barbara for over a month. “We just haven’t found it,” he stated. “That’s just a theory; I have no proof of it.” Fisk further theorized that the current medical alarm over the new disease will last the better part of two months.

What to do in the meantime? The most obvious targets are the 10 cruise ships scheduled to arrive in Santa Barbara’s harbor between now and June 17. The City Council and two county supervisors ​— ​Gregg Hart and Das Williams ​— ​have sent letters petitioning the cruise lines not to come to Santa Barbara for the time being. Specifically mentioned was the Grand Princess, which was implicated in at least 21 infections and one death. That ship’s arrival has been canceled, but none of the others have yet responded. 

What if the companies insist on coming anyway? Predictably, the answer is complicated, according to City Attorney Ariel Calonne. It’s up to the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Coast Guard Captain in Los Angeles to decide. Councilmembers, including Michael Jordan, doubted the CDC’s reliability, noting that the federal health agency already weakened its health warning against elderly passengers getting on airplanes, reportedly under pressure from White House officials. What happens if City Hall doesn’t agree with the CDC? “If push comes to shove, I have the authority to block a ship from disembarking,” Calonne stated.

In the meantime, UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang announced the campus was cancelling classroom instruction for the next several months, as have several other UC schools, and that all classes would be taught online only. Sporting events, he added, would still be allowed, but with no spectators. Concerts and speeches put on by Arts & Lectures, however, will continue for the time being. Many conference and convention organizers are pulling the plug, though, as of now, Santa Barbara’s celebration of Earth Day is still happening in April. Several high-profile South Coast hotels report that room bookings are down 10-15 percent and cancellations are on the rise.

San Luis Obispo has already initiated social distancing even though it has no confirmed cases. Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez questioned Ansorg why Santa Barbara is waiting for the first case to initiate social distancing restrictions. Maybe that first case could be prevented, he argued, if we did. Ansorg said the data did not support that approach, but admitted, “It’s a fine line” knowing when to make that call. What social distancing regulations might mean for the community went largely unexplored. 

One speaker questioned whether the coronavirus ​— ​which has now killed 4,000 worldwide ​— ​was generating a disproportionate response given that the flu killed 34,000 last year. Dr. Fisk acknowledged that the so-called common flu kills “a jumbo jet full of passengers every day” without much public commotion. But the coronavirus is brand new and mutates faster than any virus he’s seen before. Paige Batson, deputy health officer for the county, added that vaccines exist for the flu and that humans have developed “herd immunity” to many strains. By contrast, there is no vaccine for the coronavirus and no herd immunity. 

Many of the elected officials, especially those with children, wanted to know how to tell the new virus apart from the common colds or a more traditional flu. Unlike the flu, the virus often starts off mildly, as a sniffle and a cough. Symptoms typically manifest four to six days after exposure. The new virus quickly moves from the upper respiratory tract to the lungs. Those infected experience shortness of breath; it becomes painful to breathe. In 45 percent of the cases in China, it was accompanied by fever. Diarrhea is not typically associated with it. For people over 60 or with underlying health conditions ​— ​such as diabetes or cardiopulmonary issues ​— ​it can be especially dangerous. In Santa Barbara County, 32,000 people are 75 years old or more.

County health officials are contacting all 250 licensed senior care facilities in the county, and they’re taking special pains to reach out to the homeless. Dr. Ansorg noted that the county frequently rents motel rooms for homeless people with TB, suggesting they might do the same for people with the virus, assuming the right ventilation system is in place.

People who believe they might be infected should call Cottage first before showing up, Fisk stated. They will be greeted in the emergency room parking lot by medical personnel wearing protective garb and security personnel. Unless they are presenting symptoms, they will be sent home. 

In the meantime, the public is strongly advised to observe stringent hygiene. “You can’t wash your hands enough,” stated Dr. Ansorg. Don’t touch your face, mouth, nose, or eyes. Don’t shake hands; fist bump or touch elbows instead. If you’re sick ​— ​or think you might be ​— ​stay home and stay away from crowded places. When grocery shopping, Ansorg advised going at 7 in the morning. Clean and disinfect countertops and surfaces frequently. And no, vodka wouldn’t work; it’s only 40 percent alcohol. To be effective, he cautioned, it needs to be 60 percent.

“We are recommending self-imposed abstinence” from going to public events, Dr. Ansorg explained. “I would be hard-pressed to institute more draconian measures in the moment.” But it would take less than five minutes to declare a local health emergency. On Monday, California reported 114 cases; Tuesday morning, it was 133; Tuesday night, it was 157. “It changes so fast,” Ansorg said. “It’s pretty breathtaking.”

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