Testing Remains a Major Problem in Santa Barbara County

After Five Months of COVID, Still Not Enough Test Kits

Dr. Beth Prinz puts a test in a tube after testing a patient in their car outside a clinic in Goleta. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

HAPPY ENDING: If the COVID-19 infection numbers are to be believed anymore, there were 6,526 stories in the Naked City as of this week’s news deadline. Bob McDermott—strangely—is not even one of them. Except of course, he is. It turns out, McDermott—better known around town as “Childcare Bob” — was actually one of the first. That may be his whole problem.

For the past 34 years, McDermott has toiled as one of Santa Barbara’s most popular kindergarten teachers of all time, lighting up any classroom with an irrepressible mix of swagger, warmth, and fun.

Back in March, McDermott began experiencing chills, fevers, and other flu-like symptoms. He’d been hanging out with a family of four who were among the first eight individuals in the county to test positive for COVID. Two were medical professionals. McDermott’s nextdoor neighbor, a retired emergency room nurse, ordered Bob to get to the emergency room immediately. He needed to be tested. Now.

Through no fault of his own, it would turn out, Bob didn’t get the test. Little surprise. From the very start, testing has been a crapshoot. It still is. 

This Tuesday, for example, we were notified that for the past 10 days, the official number of positive cases in Santa Barbara County had been undercounted. By how much, we’re not sure. It’s a statewide problem, it turns out, meaning the small but significant drop in positive test results we’ve been tentatively celebrating was only a mirage. More confusingly, we recently learned that 20 of the sheriffs’ deputies and three inmates at the county jail who tested positive for COVID didn’t really test positive. This was not the county’s fault, but the lab’s.

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And then, of course, there was last week’s bombshell that we had somehow failed to include 28 dead people when tabulating the number of COVID-related deaths in Santa Barbara County. As outrageous as that is, it’s all too understandable given the continual insanity confronted by our frontline medical workers.

On the cold and rainy March day that Bob trudged up to the big emergency tent just outside of the Cottage Hospital Emergency Room, test kits were in excruciating short supply. They had to be strictly rationed. Bob was sent in, had his temperature taken, and reported his symptoms. The attending physician knew the family that had infected Bob. He knew they were sick. He told Bob to go home and quarantine in place. He had COVID, he was told. But no, they wouldn’t test him. 

Bob went home. For nine days he went through the agonies junkies do when kicking heroin cold turkey. For two days, the symptoms eased off, but then returned. Three more days of hell.

For those who believe COVID is a problem only for people who are old, fat, brown, behind bars, or poor, McDermott—admittedly 54—tells another story. Physically, he’s what you’d call robust. Before COVID, he went to the gym four times a week, where he consistently could run a respectable eight-minute mile on the treadmill. By night, Bob was lead singer in Tequila Mockingbird, a classic ’80s rock band with a sound so hairy that crowds left the dance floors wet and warped afterward. I mention this because four months after Bob was officially designated as “recovered,” he still experiences significant shortness of breath. Without the steroid-infused inhalers he huffs to keep the air passages open, Bob would be another bug-eyed fish on the bottom of the boat. 

That was four months ago.

As of this writing, 88 county residents are now hospitalized with COVID. Given Bob’s experience, I can only wonder how sick they must be. 

Bob called me, as a lot of people do these days, because of a bill. He got charged $1,500 for showing up to take a test that was supposed to be free. Except, of course, he never even got tested. The only thing he actually got, Bob fumed, was his temperature taken. After jawboning with the people in collections, Bob got his bill reduced to $1,100. But still, $1,100 to have your temperature read? Take it or leave it, he was told, but if he didn’t accept, his bill would go to collections. 

It turns out, he was charged the usual fee for a Cottage ER visit. The bill would have been the same if he’d only been given an aspirin, he was told. “I didn’t even get an aspirin,” he replied. At the time, Bob had no idea the COVID tent was part of the ER. Normally, Bob’s insurance would have covered much of this. But he lost his insurance when the school district closed the Open Alternative School, and his work hours were reduced to half-time. The cheapest policy he could find cost $13,000 a year, with a $3,500 deductible.

No wonder he was mad. 

I called Cottage and got Chief Financial Officer Brad Tande on the phone. He is a straight shooter. He could not discuss specific cases, but he assured me that on March 27, Cottage had called off the dogs for such cases. Nobody would be sent to collections over a COVID test, and financial assistance provided for those in need. Signs now announced the tent was part of the ER.

Bob’s problem might have been timing. He was ahead of the curve. He showed up for testing on March 23, four days before the policy changed. I called him with the news. It turns out, he had some news of his own. When he had just called Cottage to verify their last offer, he was told his bill had dropped to zero. He didn’t owe anything. 

How did that happen? Why had no one called him? No one knew.

Maybe Bob McDermott’s the 6,527th story in the Naked City, one with an actual happy ending? We’ll never know. Given the sorry state of testing, we’ll never know how many stories there really are.

Every day, the staff of the Santa Barbara Independent works hard to sort out truth from rumor and keep you informed of what’s happening across the entire Santa Barbara community. Now there’s a way to directly enable these efforts. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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