Growing Pains for Santa Barbara’s New Public Health Czar

It’s Not Easy Finding Ways to Talk to the Public About the Apocalypse

A nearly empty State Street, residents are advised to stay inside. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

[UPDATE 3/26:] Since the writing of this story, county Public Health officials have agreed to release information detailing in which cities those infected with COVID-19 live. The original story follows.

For the time being, I’m blaming the sheep. It must have been their fault. Not mine.

I mention this in response to a confab of assorted Big Wigs and the county’s public health officer, Dr. Henning Ansorg, who convened earlier this week. The Big Wigs — elected officials from all over the county map — were decidedly not happy. The anti-COVID-19 lockdown was not working. They had wanted to see tumbleweeds skittering down the streets of Santa Barbara County’s most cosmopolitan of metropolises. I get their point. Despite strict instructions that everyone place themselves on house arrest, clusters of citizens were out and about all weekend. Maybe no one was frolicking, but we were quietly reveling in one of those whiplash-inducing collisions of light and air that make Santa Barbara’s property values so excruciatingly spectacular.

For the briefest of seconds, we could not hear the Four Horsemen of the Apocalyptus. The Fat Lady was not singing.

And then, of course, there were the sheep.

Grazing happily on top of the hills overlooking Las Positas — now Elings — Park were about 200 sheep, imported from the high-plains tundra of the Cuyama Valley, fattening up on the grasslands of a former city dump. One day, those sheep will be served on a plate with baby carrots swimming in a fjord of truffle oil. (See, I can write foodie.) But for the time being, these sheep, baby and otherwise, were rewriting world record books in terms of contented cuteness. Certainly, the hilltop views of the mountains and the sea — sublimely ridiculous in their own right — didn’t hurt either.

Ansorg, not yet a year into his gig as the county’s Top Cop for public health, clearly had no chance. But the Big Wigs wanted action. They wanted chests thumped, tables pounded, and messages delivered with absolute and unequivocal clarity. But that is not Ansorg, a soulful, intelligent doctor endowed with an abundance of reticence and streaks of sly humor. Where the Big Wigs wanted black-and-white, Ansorg projects gray. Where the Big Wigs want faster-harder-more-now, Ansorg projects nuance and caution. In public forums, Ansorg appears to measure his words as if they were as scarce as COVID-19 test kits. 

It’s more than that.

Earlier last week, Ansorg recommended all bars and restaurants be shut down. Shortly thereafter, the Santa Barbara City Council mandated that bars and restaurants — along with a host of other enterprises — be closed. Later last week, Ansorg ordered everyone 75 and older to shelter in place in their homes. Less than an hour later, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered everyone in the state — except for those engaged in essential functions such as news reporting and running pot shops — to shelter in place. Muckety-mucks at City College still grumble that they would have pulled the plug sooner on classes if not for how long Ansorg made them wait.

Personally, I appreciate Ansorg’s candor. At the many public presentations intended to inform and reassure the public, one doctor wearing a white lab coat can be counted on to wax rhapsodic about all the COVID-19 test kits soon to arrive, while Ansorg consistently talks about how serious the acute shortage of equipment actually is. Reality is always a mixed message. Why should we expect otherwise?

The real problem, I think, has been the lack of clear information. Initially, reporters beat their heads against the wall trying to get reliable information about how many tests have been administered to Santa Barbara residents. It took a little more than a week to get that straightened out. As it did to determine the exact the number of ventilators available in the county, a fact seemingly essential for any meaningful surge planning. After asking the same question past the point of obnoxiousness, I was notified last week that the county didn’t track that info. I couldn’t believe it.

Later that day — when Assemblymember Monique Limón asked the same question at a virtual town hall forum — we heard the number was 32 with another 18 soon to be arriving. But how many hospital beds would we need? How serious is the shortage of protective gear? Naturally, there’s no metric available for either. 

Again, I get it. However much we have, we know it won’t be nearly enough. Even when we get more — which we no doubt will — it still won’t be close. But I like crisp metrics and tidy projections. They give me the illusion that someone knows what they’re doing. In such times, such illusions are necessary. No one really knows. We’re all just figuring it out. 

But the Big Wigs are getting restless. They want more information released about the 24 (as of this writing) people in the county who tested positive. Right now, Ansorg’s office is releasing only the most general data — the age bracket and whether they hail from North or South County. Whether any are medical professionals or county jail inmates — as has been widely rumored by seemingly credible sources — we will not be told out of deference to patient privacy. Likewise for more specific info as to where they reside. Ansorg’s information policy is in line with Kern and San Bernardino counties, among the most withholding in the state. This has the Big Wigs bugged. Cops aren’t going to enforce against social distancing violators. Neither is the sheriff. If the public knows what cities our positives come from, the Big Wigs think, other residents living there will be scared into complying more with the governor’s order to shelter in place. 

Therein lies our challenge.

What do they think we are, sheep? 

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