Santa Barbara County Public Health Department Dr. Henning Ansorg | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

California surpassed 4,000 deaths in the COVID-19 crisis today. On Wednesday, the nation had more than 100,000 people who died from the disease. In Santa Barbara, a third death has been reported at Lompoc penitentiary, but the county’s status page does not list it. This would the 13th death in the county from COVID-19. (That story appears at “More Suffering and Death at Lompoc Prison.”)

The county’s health official stated at today’s press conference that the county’s reopening would “pause” for a week while Public Health assessed the impact of a recent sunny weekend. Joining Dr. Henning Ansorg at the day’s press conference was Suzanne Grimmesey of County Behavioral Wellness and Reverend Dave Moore, whose church is among those that could open in a limited way.

“My own congregation meets over Zoom,” Rev. Moore said, “and we livestream each Sunday on Facebook. Only the building is closed, not our church.” He went on to say that they all missed being able to bring their voices together, “but that’s a small price to pay to protect our families and our communities.”

Of the riots that broke out yesterday when the Minneapolis officer who killed George Floyd appeared to go unprosecuted, Moore commented that he had a friend who’d been to Ferguson after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. “He wants to go to Minneapolis,” the pastor said, “but his mother is on a ventilator in St. Louis fighting COVID-19.”

The everyday struggle of African Americans went largely unseen in Santa Barbara and around the country, he added. Hypertension, diabetes, and obesity were medical conditions that made the community ripe for COVID, Moore said, but redlining, hiring and firing, high-density housing, and a lack of access to health care “are causing us to die more than most.”

Dr. Ansorg announced 13 new cases in the county, eight of which were in the City of Santa Maria. The outbreak in the city was not in any particular neighborhood, Ansorg said, but Public Health was looking at it intensely. Outreach was taking place in multiple languages and through personal contacts in the ag community, city officials, employers, and also with San Luis Obispo, since so many people cross between the counties. “I wish I had a better answer,” Ansorg said. “I still grapple with the fact that Santa Maria has so many cases.”

He also noted that public testing and contract tracing have revealed positive COVID patients who were asymptomatic. “Completely without symptoms,” Ansorg said, with obvious amazement. “No fever or cold or any of it.” But people with symptoms were experiencing a wide range, from coughs and feeling under the weather to being in the ICU on a ventilator, fighting for their lives, he said.

It takes about two weeks for people to come down with COVID symptoms, Ansorg observed in discussing the “pause.” With the warm weather and people on the beaches the past two weekends, that could start this Saturday, he said. Once they were sure the numbers were not going up, then he’d feel the next stage could be started safely.

For the business owners restive at that slowdown, Suzanne Grimmesey related a conversation she’d had the previous evening. “She was experiencing it differently from others,” Grimmesey said. “We are not all in the same boat. We are weathering the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.” Grimmesey noted that some needed to return to work for the income but didn’t want to for their health’s sake; others wanted to return but couldn’t. Confusion over what’s safe and what’s not safe makes us feel vulnerable, she stated. “It’s important to keep in mind, we’ve never done this before. Be patient and kind with yourselves and with others,” she advised.

The issue of wearing a mask and not wearing a mask has been a confusing one, Ansorg said. He repeated that outdoors was safer than indoors, as he has in previous pressers, but the opening of State Street into a pedestrian promenade has brought the crowd outdoors. A cloth mask isn’t to protect myself, he explained. “It is to protect everyone around me, anyone closer than six feet apart. If I carry the disease without symptoms, I could infect somebody else.” On State Street, he said, “You don’t know who’s coming toward you. It’s safer to wear a mask.”

As Rev. Moore said, “COVID-19 is still in our community. We must not let our guard down.”

Correction: This story was corrected to state the United States topped 100,000 COVID deaths on Wednesday, not Thursday.

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