State health officials put County Public Health on notice that two of the six criteria that allow reopening were in the red zone, so relentlessly steep has been the upward climb of COVID cases and hospitalizations these past several weeks. Not only has a superior court judge tested positive for COVID, so too has the head of the county jail, Vince Wasilewski. Six skilled nursing facilities have now reported outbreaks, though five have fewer than five positives, with the largest continuing to be Country Oaks in Santa Maria with 54 infections.
Perhaps most alarming about Friday’s press conference was the unusually dramatic Dr. Henning Ansorg, Santa Barbara County’s chief medical officer, who normally affects a careful monotone. He described the intense speed with which the disease reaches a critical mass, then related that clinicians in hospitals, seeing their patient numbers doubling: “They call and text me and call again, and tell me, ‘Dude, do something. We are really concerned here. Don’t open anything anymore.’
“If you come down with the COVID disease, the first three to five days are most critical in determining if you are going to get really ill, or if you are on the way of recovery,” said Ansorg. “Once you turn the corner toward getting worse, it is a very rapid decline, usually that easily ends up in the intensive care unit. So,” he went on, “if you only have 30 patients in all of our hospitals in our county, you only have 30 ticking timebombs where you have to anticipate a very rapid decline in their health care. Today it was 67 of them.”
He added that doctors liked to have redundancy in the system, extra beds for a deteriorating situation, which in the case of this virus, could be all patients at the same time.
The county has 131 ICU beds and 569 hospital beds altogether, according to Public Health’s statistics dashboard. It has 130 ventilators, 35 of which are in use, or 27 percent; nine are being used by COVID patients. As Ansorg described it, the 67 new patients could deteriorate rapidly and need ICU beds or ventilators. And this might just be a first wave.
It can take three weeks “for us to see the effects of our behavior,” Ansorg said. The Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, the county had 12 new cases and 28 people in a hospital, nine of them in the ICU. By today, three weeks later to the penny, the county has 67 new cases, with 65 people in the hospital and 27 in an ICU. “We did expect that our numbers would increase a bit,” Ansorg said of Memorial Day. “However, I did not imagine it would happen to such a degree.”
Santa Barbara’s highest positives to date is 82 new cases on Thursday, June 18. The county dashboard lists test totals, but Ansorg stated increased testing was only part of the reason for the high positives number. Testing is done by private physicians, as well as at three free Public Health sites in Solvang, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara, and results can take several days to return.
Ansorg regretted that opening hotels, movie theaters, bars, and restaurants had sent the message that COVID was over, all was back to normal as before. “Unfortunately, that is not the case,” he said. “COVID is still very much among us. Reducing the mobility of people is the best way to slow it,” he added, also with regret in his voice, saying it was important for the economy to recover but also for people to avoid infection.
Public Health’s current strategy is to postpone the rest of Phase 2 reopenings — personal care like piercing and waxing — and to exhort the public to take COVID seriously: Stay home. Ansorg noted that patients who came down with COVID most severely did have preexisting conditions like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, or chronic lung disease, but, “If you think, ‘Oh, I don’t have diabetes, therefore I’m not at risk,’ you are unfortunately not safe.”
He added that what they knew last week about asymptomatic patients — that they comprised maybe half of new cases — could not be confirmed today. “In COVID times,” Ansorg said, “one week is an eternity.”
Asked if the recent rallies and protests had produced cases, Ansorg said the contact tracing team was finding that most patients contracted COVID at home or at work. “The reason is that your exposure at home or at work is much longer than even at a rally or a visit to a restaurant,” he said. “We really urge employers to be more vigilant about protecting their workforce, the employees themselves, and really prioritize this.”
The new cases included six more at the County Jail — four staffers and two inmates, in addition to the nine disclosed yesterday. They included Chief Custody Deputy Wasilewski, three custody lieutenants, and a sergeant, said Sheriff Bill Brown. One resident inmate had complained of symptoms this morning, Brown added, and had tested positive — the inmates in his housing area were being tested. The second inmate had been extradited from Arizona; he and the two detectives who accompanied him were in isolation.
All custody staff were being tested, Brown said — 114 as of noon Friday — and he was likely going to be tested himself. Brown stated they’d deliberately kept Sheriff’s HQ personnel separated from jail deputies to lessen any potential disease spread. Visiting inmates was limited, he said, but two free phone calls had been added per week and paid-postage postcards were given out.
The Country Oaks skilled nursing facility in Santa Maria had increased its positive tests since Van Do-Reynoso’s update to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, and she stated five other facilities, which the director of Public Health did not identify, had positive cases, fewer than five at each so far. Country Oaks now had 28 residents and 26 staff members who tested positive. Five of its residents are known to have died of COVID. An intensive effort is underway to identify anyone contacted by the infected individuals, Do-Reynoso said, “So please respond when you are called.”
The total deaths in the county have climbed to 22. In the state, 5,360 people are known to have died of COVID-19. To continue California’s progress against the disease, the state now requires the use of face coverings in high-risk settings — when people cannot social distance — citing a growing body of scientific evidence that it reduces the spread of the disease. For more ways to stay healthy, visit publichealthsbc.org.
Editor’s Note: This story was corrected to state Dr. Henning Ansorg is the county’s public health official; the Public Health chief is Van Do-Reynoso. Testing information was added on June 20.