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This week marks two particularly devastating milestones, one local and one national, in the COVID-19 pandemic. Santa Barbara county recorded its first death from COVID-19, a man in his sixties at Marian Medical Center. In addition, our national physician community mourns the loss of the first emergency physician to die from COVID-19, Dr. Frank Gabrin, two-time cancer survivor and emergency-room physician in New Jersey, who died in his husband’s arms on Tuesday. I invite you to pause and consider the use of the descriptor “first” being utilized in all media releases about these men. This indicates the obvious, horrible truth, which is that there will be more deaths. Many more.
I believe it is safe to say that the events of the last few weeks have felt surreal for all of us. Even as a physician who foresaw the need for shelter-in-place orders and predicted the extent of the of the turmoil this disease would cause long before the general public came to accept this, the reality is still stranger and scarier than I could have predicted.
Perhaps the most strange, scary, and surreal moments I’ve had in the past few weeks are the extensive and ongoing conversations with my fellow physicians about how to quickly increase our life insurance benefits and add that youngest child to our wills, as we’ve been meaning to do for a few years.
You have seen in multiple media outlets that health-care professionals are working with ineffective personal protective equipment or no personal protective equipment at all. It was reported that Dr. Gabrin was forced to reuse a mask and gown that are meant to be disposed of between patients. My fellow physicians know that extraordinary numbers of us will die fighting this disease along with our nursing, therapy, and other colleagues on the front lines and thousands of our fellow citizens.
Meanwhile, the federal response to this crisis has been unforgivably lacking. The absent leadership and disorganized, disjointed response of the federal government is directly contributing to the death toll. Even within our state, many of the important recommendations regarding social distancing and sheltering in place are dependent on voluntary compliance of the general public.
Within Santa Barbara, I have been active on social media in recent weeks using my medical knowledge and outspoken voice to ask our Public Health Department to step up and provide more accurate vital information to the public. I, like my colleagues Drs. Brett Wilson and Nels Gerhardt, who penned a recent Voices piece, have used every public avenue available to me to ask community members to stay home, as we know this is the only chance we have of “flattening the curve” and delaying the spread of disease enough to not overwhelm the healthcare system all at once. We understand firsthand the disastrous effects of COVID-19 and desperately want to protect our friends, family, colleagues, and community members.
And while I am genuinely happy to see that a majority of my fellow Santa Barbara residents are working hard to comply with social distancing and shelter in place recommendations and understand the urgency of the situation, the fact remains that a not insignificant minority of our fellow citizens either do not understand the recommendations or do not understand the risks of noncompliance.
Just yesterday while I was out running (alone and well-distanced from others) near Leadbetter Beach where I live, I encountered a yoga instructor teaching a class of 20 students on the beach. I pleaded with him to understand how these types of nonessential gatherings put our entire community at risk, however, he was unwavering in his view that his classes should continue unhindered and cited the fact that law enforcement officers were aware of his classes and did not fine him as justification to continue teaching.
I cannot emphasize enough the need for immediate action to reduce the spread of the disease. And while I am so proud of my fellow community members who are fully embracing current rules and recommendations, it has become clear to me in the last few weeks as I observe the full parking lots at Shoreline Park and yoga classes on the beach that voluntary compliance is not enough to obtain the results needed during this critical time.
Therefore, I call on our local lawmakers and regulatory departments to step up and take action to limit access to public places such as parks, beaches, and hiking trails that continue to be used for group gatherings, as the nearby counties of Ventura and Los Angeles have done. This must, of course, be done with utmost consideration and care for the population experiencing homelessness who have additional important needs that we must be conscious about meeting during this vulnerable time.
Although there have been minimal steps in this direction with fencing placed around the skate park, basketball hoops and volleyball nets being taken down, and closures announced for Isla Vista beaches this weekend, these alone are not enough. Sweeping action is urgently needed to slow the progress of this deadly disease and protect our fellow residents and my fellow health-care workers. I sincerely hope our officials are up to the task and willing to act swiftly in order to minimize the devastation of COVID-19 in our county.