Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors 2nd District supervisor Gregg Hart updates the community on Coronavirus and the re-opening process during a press conference May 18, 2020. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Santa Barbara County won its first major victory toward reopening the economy Monday. After days-long pushback from Santa Barbara and other counties, the state folded, announcing it would lower the bar on the requirements needed to more quickly reopen businesses.

“The county’s Public Health Department staff used the issues raised in the unanimous letter sent last week by the Board of Supervisors to the governor to negotiate with the state and provide greater flexibility to open more businesses in our county,” 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart said.

Hart said the county would be able to submit an attestation as soon as Tuesday because of the modified guidelines. Up until this point, Governor Gavin Newsom’s epidemiologic criteria would have required the county to have zero COVID-19 deaths and no more than 45 positive cases in a 14-day period. The county’s Director of Public Health Van Do-Reynoso called the criteria “insurmountable” hurdles to jump.

“The very hard work of Dr. Do-Reynoso and Dr. [Henning] Ansorg this weekend through many phone calls and conversations with the governor’s office and the California Department of Public Health has produced significant progress,” Hart said. 

The most significant win from the public health negotiation is the state’s separation of community COVID-19 cases from the inmate cases at the Lompoc Federal Prison, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of the county’s total positive cases. 

The Board of Supervisors’ letter to the governor last week pointed out that the county has an 11 percent positivity rate excluding the prison population, while the positivity rate inside the prison was reported at 67 percent since it began mass testing, greatly skewing the county’s overall positive case rates and making it impossible to reach the reopening criteria. Now, the inmate cases will not be held against the county, though all prison staff will still be included in the community count.

Reopening in a Safe Environment Plan

With the county closer to reopening more businesses, Nancy Anderson, assistant CEO of the county, said the Santa Barbara–specific guide to reopening was released to the public Friday. She will present the guide to the Board of Supervisors in more detail Tuesday. 

Dubbed the RISE (Reopening In a Safe Environment) guide, it was created by more than 300 local stakeholders from sectors like education, faith institutions, lodging, agriculture, building and development, and beverage and restaurant industries who collectively shared their expertise and input before the drafts were submitted to an independent medical and public health expert panel to vet the guide. 

“The guide is essentially a Santa Barbara County playbook for reopening,” Anderson said. “It is a local supplemental guide to the state’s four-stage resilience roadmap.” 

She described the process of creating the guide as a “marathon of meetings,” because it was originally meant to be created over a six-week period and instead was crammed into three due to the governor’s expedition of reopening the state. 

Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, who specializes in infectious diseases at Cottage Health, was on the RISE medical panel. She said the medical team reviewed criteria for reopening at each phases and looked at how to re-tighten criteria if another wave of the virus hits the county. Overall, she said the guide is “very exciting.”

“Up until now, we’ve been fortunate to have the guidance of the Public Health Department to tell us what not to do to prevent the spread of the disease,” Fitzgibbons said. “The exciting news that I think the RISE guide brings us is a partnership with literally hundreds of stakeholders around our community telling us in a Santa Barbara way what to do.”

Testing and Treatment Updates

Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said on Monday that he’s “proud” of the county, because hospitalization and intensive care unit rates have continued to remain steady while Lompoc and Marian hospitals received the first doses of remdesivir, an experimental drug that may treat the virus.

“I would like to commend the community for their responsible actions and their support in preventing further spread of the virus in our area,” Ansorg said. 

He said that by now, the three testing sites in the county have conducted a large enough number of tests that he can accurately say about 1-2 percent of the population has been in contact with the virus.

He also emphasized that anyone can schedule an appointment to get tested at the testing sites now. Any person, regardless of symptoms, lack of health insurance, age, or employment status can be tested for the virus. 

Ansorg also reported the daily case count. There were 22 new cases, seven of which were inmates at the Lompoc Prison. Of the 15 that were in the community, one person lives in Santa Barbara; two people live in Lompoc; nine live in Santa Maria; one person lives in Orcutt; one person lives in the unincorporated areas of of Sisquoc, Casmalia, Garey,  Cuyama, New Cuyama, and the City of Guadalupe; and one is still pending the location.

There are 1,496 cases county-wide. Excluding the prison cases, 426 have recovered; and 27 are in the hospital, 11 of which are in the intensive care unit.

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