Dr. Beth Prinz tests a patient in her car outside an S.B. Neighborhood Clinic in Goleta. The widely used nasal swab test, commonly called the PCR test, aims to identify patients currently infected with COVID-19. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Don’t get tested. Get tested. Don’t get tested. Get tested. 

Based on the fluctuating availability of supplies, Santa Barbara County health officials have flip-flopped in their messaging on mass COVID-19 testing. This Friday afternoon, they made another about-face and announced that all members of the public ― regardless of their potential exposure or symptoms ― should get screened for the virus. And not just for the benefit of identifying and isolating cases. 

By simply conducting more tests, explained Nick Clay, director of the county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency, the county can help pull itself down from the dreaded purple tier of the state’s new color-coded monitoring system into the red tier, which would allow certain business operations ― including partial indoor dining and movie theaters with limited seating ― to resume. In order to move to the red tier, Santa Barbara must reduce its average daily case rate (or number of new cases per 100,000 people) from 8.3 to 7.0.

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“One key element of the state’s new approach to reopening to a safer economy is testing volume, or the average number of COVID-19 tests we conduct per day based on our population over a seven-day period,” Clay said. 

“The state adjusts our case rate up or down depending on how many tests we conduct. The state compares the county’s average testing volume against the state’s average. If we test more than the state average, the state adjusts our seven-day case average down, and that’s a good thing. Conversely, if we test less than the state average, we are penalized and our case rate is adjusted upward, and that’s a bad thing.”

Santa Barbara County’s most recent seven-day testing average was 191. The state average was 217, so Santa Barbara’s case rate was bumped up from 7.9 to 8.3. The results of the next grading period will be announced on Tuesday. 

“We recognize the messaging on testing has shifted during the course of the pandemic,” Clay said. “The messaging has been primarily driven by testing availability. When the availability has been limited, we have asked the community to limit the testing to those who need it. We are now asking the community to get tested, because not only is testing readily available, but sustained community testing will contribute to the county moving to the next reopening tier.”

To find screening sites offered by various providers, visit covid19.ca.gov and navigate to the “Where can I get a test?” link toward the bottom of the page, Clay advised. Doctor’s offices, clinics, urgent cares, and some pharmacies also offer some testing, he said. The county continues to operate its free testing sites in Santa Maria, Buellton, and Goleta, which are open on weekends. To make an appointment, visit lhi.care/covidtesting. The average turnaround time for results is now one to three days.

Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, director of the county’s Public Health Department, said social gatherings remain a significant source of transmission. “Please think twice about attending that backyard BBQ, not wearing a mask, playing a soccer game, gathering at the beach, or attending parties,” she said, especially with flu season right around the corner. “Everyone can make a difference, and everyone must strive to make that difference.”

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