Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

COVID-19 rates are quickly spiking in Santa Barbara County, and Public Health officials are urging residents to stay home this Thanksgiving, or else further deaths and hospitalizations are inevitable.

Because of a maintenance issue with the state’s reporting system, the county’s COVID data is only available up until Saturday, when 95 new cases were reported ― the highest number in one day since August. Sunday and Monday’s reports will be reported out on Tuesday evening.

The surge in new cases comes two days after a statewide 10 p.m. curfew went into effect, forbidding gatherings or other activities outside of the same household, and a week after Santa Barbara was moved back into the most-restrictive purple tier along with 40 other California counties.

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Los Angeles County, one of the 41 purple counties also under curfew, took it a step further and also banned outdoor dining in addition to the indoor dining already banned in the purple tier. When asked if Santa Barbara will follow suit ― particularly in areas like the State Street Promenade ― Public Health’s Jackie Ruiz said that it isn’t under consideration at this time.

But that doesn’t mean Los Angeles residents will flock up to Santa Barbara for some holiday al fresco dining.

Overall, there has not been a surge in hotel stays in the Santa Barbara South Coast in November. The latest report from Visit Santa Barbara, which covers the bookings for the week ending November 14, showed a decline of 19 percent in hotel occupancy compared to last year. Though the number of bookings over Thanksgiving won’t be available until the next week, Kathy Janega-Dykes with Visit Santa Barbara said she’s heard anecdotally that “many of our hotels have seen significant cancellations for this weekend — economy to luxury properties.”

The county’s testing positivity rate, a key metric in moving through the tier system, has steadily increased in recent weeks. The metric is defined as the percentage of tests reported that are positive over a seven-day period. Some skeptics have said that increased testing is an obvious link to increased positivity, but Ruiz said otherwise.

Between the first and second weeks of November, testing volume was consistent at about 11,500 tests per week, she said. However, testing positivity increased during this time from 2.4 percent to 3.2 percent. In addition, the case rate increased during this time period. Currently, it’s at 2.7 percent. The county’s adjusted case rate, or cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period, is 7.1 — 0.1 above the red tier’s seven-case limit. On November 1, the number was 5.51, well within the red tier’s 4-7 range.

The actions of Santa Barbarans this holiday and beyond will not just affect hospitalizations and deaths, but it will also be what determines if schools can reopen as planned or not. The schools in the area that have already made the shift to some form of in-person education may continue despite the tier change because they switched to in-person learning in a red tier. For those who haven’t, though, it’s not as simple.

For the Santa Barbara and Goleta Union school districts, the county needs to be in the red tier or better for two weeks by the week that school starts — January 19 and 11, respectively — for school to resume on campus as planned. Otherwise, they will have to remain in distance-learning models, but elementary schools will have a shot at getting state waivers allowing them to reopen in small cohorts if the district chooses.

Westmont College is the most recent school to experience an outbreak, though several schools and colleges in the county have been hit so far. The university currently has two students who have tested positive, and they are in isolation either on campus or at home. There are 19 students who may have come into contact with someone with COVID-19, so they are quarantining either on campus or at home. The college is awaiting the results of 15 tests that will release those students from quarantine.

The county’s death count stands at 133, and there are currently 20 people in the hospital, three of whom are in an intensive care unit. Of Saturday’s 95 new cases, 40 of them came from the Lompoc Federal Prison. Santa Barbara, the area with the second highest number of cases, had 11.

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