Sears Site Identified as Possible COVID Surge Center

Sudden Spike in Cases Projected During Flu Season

County supervisors approved spending up to $1.2 million this Tuesday to lease the empty Sears building at La Cumbre Plaza to create space for 200 additional medical beds for non-COVID cases, freeing up space at Cottage Hospital for a possible influx of COVID patients. | Credit: Nick Welsh

Anticipating a possible second peak in COVID cases, Santa Barbara emergency planners are proposing to establish a 200-bed COVID facility at the large, expansive, and vacant site of Sears, located in La Cumbre Mall. County supervisors will vote this Tuesday whether to authorize up to $1.2 million to transform the vacant department store into a regional emergency medical facility and up to $40,000 a month in rent for up to 18 months. County real estate negotiators signed a letter of intent on July 4 with Rippan Property to rent out the 72,000-square-foot property.

The Sears deal was motivated by projections by the World Health Organization indicating there’s a possibility for a sudden spike in new cases rather than the relatively gradual wave experienced thus far. In such a scenario, health planners worry about Santa Barbara’s health infrastructure being overwhelmed with new COVID cases at the same time that flu season starts. Sears has been vacant for one year, and property upgrades — such as electrical systems, air conditioning, and air flow — are seen as likely possibilities.

As of Sunday afternoon, Santa Barbara County has jumped 4,000 COVID infections since the stats were tracked. Of the 4,051 confirmed infections, 3,678 have recovered and 31 have died. Currently, county hospitals report the care and treatment for 81 COVID-confirmed or COVID-suspected cases. Of those 25 are in intensive care units. While those metrics fall within the acceptable range as defined in State Public Health dictates, the rate of new cases has been accelerating in the past two weeks well past the state’s threshold of acceptability. In the past two weeks, Santa Barbara County has reported 1,219 new cases, which translates to 275 new cases per 100,000 over the past 14 days. The state limit is 100.

Although new cases have broken out throughout the entire county, the most intense outbreak has occurred in Santa Maria, which has now posted 1,628 infected individuals. The federal prison in Lompoc accounts for 998, and the caseloads there — once a hot spot of national concern — have diminished dramatically in recent weeks. For all the attention focused on Santa Maria, the South Coast — including Gaviota and the Santa Ynez Valley — has posted a total of 726 cases.

On Saturday, 120 new cases were reported.

Andy Caldwell, a longtime conservative critic of county government operations who is now running for Congress, has questioned the logistical wisdom of using Sears as a COVID center given the majority of cases are taking place in Santa Maria, about an hour north of the Sears property. The supervisors’ staff report stated that the site’s advantage is its centralized location. Not only is Sears both big and vacant, but it’s located within a few blocks of a freeway exit, its parking lot is voluminous, and it’s located far enough from the rest of La Cumbre Plaza to not intrude upon other stores’ shopping and parking demands.

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