It’s the difference between 17 and 18 new coronavirus cases per day that decides if Santa Barbara County can move to the less restrictive orange tier from its current red tier. “We were very, very close. We were on the edge,” Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said on Friday to a small gathering of reporters, after describing how bounding case numbers kept the county solidly in the red for now. And, if new coronavirus cases climb higher than 32 daily, the state could re-impose the purple tier shutdown, Do-Reynoso advised.
The new case rate jumped upward in Isla Vista, Santa Maria, and Lompoc last week. Five fraternity and sorority houses were involved in the Isla Vista outbreak, Do-Reynoso said, but the disease was spreading in the community and not confined to UCSB students. Forty-two new cases had been diagnosed since Sunday, October 18, with a total of 34 individuals actively sick as of Friday, October 23.
Supervisor Gregg Hart emphasized that the county’s concern went beyond Isla Vista. Santa Maria’s new case count of 18 on Friday was higher than Isla Vista’s 12, Hart said. Santa Maria’s active case count was 37. Lompoc was another hotspot, he pointed out, and the county’s COVID statistics page showed three new cases in Lompoc and 16 active cases as of Friday.
A letter signed by Public Health, UC Santa Barbara, and Santa Barbara City College officials was going to the Isla Vista community, advising them that suspensions and expulsions were among the consequences if they ignored the message to avoid large gatherings, practice social distancing, and wear face coverings.
“These innocent gatherings can lead to outbreaks that lead to widespread transmission,” said Hart. “A much more effective strategy is to prevent the outbreak from occurring in the first place.” He added that Isla Vista property owners had a great responsibility for the health of their tenants and should enforce the restrictions on gatherings.
No mention was made of enforcement by the Sheriff’s I.V. Foot Patrol, however. Residents had complained to the Independent last week that deputies were very slow to respond to complaints of parties, and several people reported seeing a party of 80-200 people at the beach several weekends ago. A Sheriff’s spokesperson advised on Saturday that the Foot Patrol was not declining to respond or holding calls for days before responding.
A new enforcement tool was added on Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors to help curb big parties, barbecues, and other events. The new administrative order created fines of $100, $200, and $500 for “egregious, willful violations of public health orders,” Hart described on Friday. He added that so far people had been cooperative and that the fines were in place should a lack of cooperation occur.
Santa Barbara County was staying in the orange zone for testing because of increased numbers of tests, said Do-Reynoso, thanking residents for continuing to sign up for COVID tests. Public Health expanded testing in Isla Vista on Friday and Saturday, and was adding dates for the Isla Vista theater location of October 29-31 and November 5-7. And, though hospitalization rates went up in 14 states, Do-Reynoso noted, admissions in California and Santa Barbara County continued to drop.
As in all things COVID, test results and new case statistics have evolved over time. Public Health departments in California have learned of discrepancies between positive case results and the reporting of them; now, for accuracy’s sake, one week passes before tiers are assessed.
The next assessment on November 3 would be based on results from October 18-24, Do-Reynoso said. She reassured that it was possible for the county to stay in the red tier and maintain its opening status. People just had to keep doing the simple health mantra: “Wear your face covering, maintain social distance, wash your hands frequently, sanitize surfaces regularly, and limit gatherings with others who are not in your household,” she reminded.
“Orange is within our grasp,” Do-Reynoso encouraged. “We’re almost there if we work to decrease the case rate.”