The county's health officer, Dr. Henning Ansorg, announced a tentative timeframe for vaccine distribution to health-care workers. | Credit: Courtesy

In the 14 days since Public Health’s previous Friday press conference, five people in Santa Barbara County died of COVID; 1,078 more were found to be infected; and 413 are actively sick today compared to 313 on November 20. The steadily rising number of cases caused Cottage Health to announce today it would reduce by half the elective surgeries that require an overnight stay at the hospital in Santa Barbara. But its frontline coronavirus staff will be among the first to receive the vaccine, the county health officer confirmed.

If all goes according to plan, said Dr. Henning Ansorg, 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine would be arriving around December 18 to all hospitals in the county and to the Public Health department. Frontline health-care workers would be the first to receive the drug. Next in line are first responders and then elderly residents of nursing homes who are at highest risk of severe disease if they should catch the virus. Equity in the distribution was factored into the county’s planning, he said.

Ansorg added that the Moderna vaccine was expected to receive an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration about 10 days after Pfizer’s. Previously, officials had stated the county had about 20,000 health-care workers and about 2,000 first responders.

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Ansorg also noted the Centers for Disease Control’s recent relaxing of quarantine periods. Of the seven-day option, Ansorg said, “We have determined this is an unacceptably high risk.” For Santa Barbara County, the recommended quarantine period for people exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus remains 14 days. Should that prove unfeasible, Ansorg said his department had approved the shorter 10-day period.

Cottage’s decision to limit elective surgeries — a choice that does not affect its Santa Ynez or Goleta hospitals — is reflected in its patient admissions over the past two weeks. On November 20, it had a total of six COVID patients, four of whom were in stable condition, and two in critical condition requiring ventilator use. Today, Cottage is caring for 24 COVID patients, six of them in critical condition, and three of those six on ventilators. Fewer elective surgeries will keep more of Cottage’s 65 intensive-care-unit beds and staff available for what is expected to be a very long, hard winter.

Countywide, hospitals in Lompoc and Santa Maria have seen a similar rise in cases. The total number of patients hospitalized with COVID today is 47, with 14 in an ICU. Two weeks ago, 20 people were sick enough to be in the hospital, and three of them were in an ICU.

While Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso explained how seven new outbreaks had been tied to businesses in multiple industry sectors — most commonly among people 18-49 years of age and in clerical or managerial positions — she emphasized that a stay-at-home order from the state was inevitable in the coming days. “It is our choices and behaviors that will keep everyone safe,” she said.

The new shutdown order is based on a region — Santa Barbara is in the Southern California region — having an ICU capacity of less than 15 percent. The concern is that ICU demand could outstrip bed and staff availability, leaving the medical infrastructure unable to treat the patients most in need. It remained important, said Dr. Do-Reynoso, to wear a facemask, keep at least six feet away from other people, wash hands, and to “stop gathering with those not in our households.”

On the other hand, said Suzanne Grimmesey of Behavioral Wellness, don’t forget to go outside, with mask in hand in case of crowds, to hike, run, ride a bike, or walk at Santa Barbara’s many beaches and parks. Simply going outside, she said, was known to boost energy and relieve depression. Her department, which has a crisis hotline at (888) 868-1639 and Wellness Team members at (805) 364-2750, is even offering a holiday phone bridge program, wherein friendly staffers will make a call to anyone who might be lonely, or call back for a chat as often as a person wants.

Supervisor Gregg Hart advised people to think of different ways to celebrate the holidays in a thoughtful way that still avoided contact outside one’s household. “We haven’t yet felt the impact of the Thanksgiving gatherings that occurred,” he warned.

Looking ahead to the necessity for more limited winter holidays, Hart stated that broad financial help for business owners, such as sales tax deferrals and loan guarantee programs, could be found at the state’s website He also asked county residents to support local businesses, or even to call and ask for their help in placing orders. “This can make or break local businesses,” he said. “Amazon doesn’t need local dollars, but local businesses do.”

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