Santa Barbara County Public Health Department Dr. Henning Ansorg, updates the community on the on going COVID-19 virus response in Santa Barbara | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Governor Gavin Newsom and Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg spelled out the next steps on the roadmap back to normal Tuesday, emphasizing that the stay at home order is still in place until six targets are met.

“[Newsom’s framework] outlines the necessary indicators that need to be in place in order to responsibly modify our current stay at home order,” Ansorg said at the county press briefing. “For this to be a possibility, we need to have sufficient testing available to rapidly identify and isolate infected persons.”

In addition to the testing improvements, Ansorg said Newsom’s remaining five goals are to ensure protection for those most vulnerable to the virus; require that all hospitals are prepared to handle a potential surge; make social distancing practices a standard integrated into schools and workplaces; have an ability to meet therapeutic demand; and have assurance that any protection measures can be reinstated if necessary. 

“[Newsom] explicitly stated that he doesn’t view the state’s stay at home order as a light switch that if we switch off will make everything go back to normal,” said 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart about the governor’s order. 

“A better analogy is a dimmer switch that will be carefully adjusted as we account for new data and new conditions,” Hart said. “He was very straightforward that we aren’t out of the woods yet, but he clearly said our current situation cannot be a permanent state.”

Ansorg said that although there is no definitive timeline for reopening, he believes the Public Health Department will have more of an idea of how to proceed in Santa Barbara County by the end of April. 

“Once our current infections and hospitalizations start to decline and these six parameters are in place, the gradual opening of certain businesses and modifications to the stay at home order will be implemented,” Ansorg said. “For Santa Barbara County, the timing of this transition will follow the state’s public health guidance but will also be tiered to our local needs.”

Testing in the county has grown significantly better, which is one of Newsom’s six goals necessary for reopening businesses. Dr. Stewart Comer, lab director for the County Public Health Department, laid out Santa Barbara’s progress in terms of testing.

“When we started this, all of our testing was off-site to different counties and the state,” Comer said. “Now all of our rapid tier-1 testing is done in Santa Barbara County. All five hospitals have access to testing that takes less than 12 hours, and two of the five hospitals —  Marian and Santa Barbara Cottage — both have access to very rapid testing capabilities that takes less than three hours.”

Comer said that, so far, the county has only been able to test tier-1 patients (hospitalized patients; elderly folks in assisted living, senior residential, or nursing homes; health-care workers) because of the short supply of tests and slow turnaround time. Although the county’s testing capacity has greatly improved, the ability to begin testing the rest of the general population is still tricky. He also said that antibody testing is difficult to accomplish, in part because there are four common seasonal coronavirus types and those patients who already had the seasonal coronavirus may test as a false positive for COVID-19.

Overall, Comer said we are now performing “average” to the rest of the nation, and Santa Barbara County is in general seeing very stable numbers of cases per day.

“I believe at the present time the county has done over 3,200 cases,” Comer said. “Our testing rate is about 0.77 percent, a little less than one percent. If you compare that nationally, it’s 0.87 percent so we’re actually very close to what the national average is in terms of the numbers of patients we test.”

He said the rate of positivity is about 8.5 to 8.8 percent, and attributed the growing numbers of positive cases to the outbreak in the Lompoc Prison. He said if the prison is taken out of the equation, Santa Barbara County has been “very steady” in terms of positive cases. The number of hospitalizations has also remained stable.  

For example, there were 13 more positive cases from the prison out of the 29 new cases announced today — nearly half. Over the past week, the virus has festered in the prison and currently contributes to 30 percent of all cases county-wide.

Out of all new cases reported today, Ansorg said two are in unincorporated parts of South County, three are in the city of Santa Barbara and unincorporated area of Mission Canyon, 16 are in Lompoc (including the 13 cases in the prison), six are in Santa Maria, one is in Orcutt, and one is pending.

Out of all reported cases to date, 133 people are recovering at home, 40 are recovering in a hospital, 15 of whom are in an Intensive Care Unit, 124 have fully recovered, and 14 are pending an update. Two people have died as a direct result of the virus.

The obvious health risks posed by the pandemic aside, many in the county are also facing economic and domestic crises as a direct result of COVID-19. Joining Hart, Ansorg, and Comer was Jennifer Smith, the executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Santa Barbara County. 

“We advise tenants who are at risk of eviction, we assist survivors of intimate partner violence, elder abuse, and sexual assault with restraining orders and related services and we also advise on foreclosure prevention for homeowners who are concerned about making mortgage payments and are at risk for foreclosure,” Smith said.

Smith said that landlords legally cannot evict tenants without a court order when the stay at home order is still in place, and that anyone experiencing eviction should contact Legal Aid right away so they can get assistance. She also said tenants who are having trouble paying rent should contact the foundation, too. 

Although physical offices are closed due to the stay at home order, Legal Aid is open and can be contacted here for those facing eviction, foreclosure, and domestic violence at home.


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