Supervisor Gregg Hart | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Santa Barbara County remains an outlier in the Southern California Region, having 32.9 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents — the rest of the region, with the exception of San Luis Obispo’s 38, ranges between 67 (Orange) and 149 (San Bernardino). Nonetheless, the county has more patients in the hospital than ever — 102 patients, 21 of them in an intensive care unit.

With infections skyrocketing, chances seem slim to nonexistent that the state will allow Santa Barbara to create a new region with Ventura and San Luis Obispo any time soon. Last Friday, Supervisor Gregg Hart spoke with Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s health secretary, about the request. Ghaly indicated they were projecting hospital capacity to January 25 in order to determine if the shutdown should continue. Santa Barbara’s fate appears tied in with that calculation.

The overall intensive-care-unit availability in California is 1.4 percent, affecting all the state’s regions but the most rural, Hart said. Santa Barbara’s ICU availability is above 30 percent, said Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s health officer, adding “a glimmer of hope” in the form of the two new vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that are coming in “regular shipments now.”

Once Public Health fine tunes the vaccine eligibility list, Ansorg said “points of dispensing,” offering the new acronym PODs, would include emergency medical services and dialysis staff. Later, outpatient clinic staff and essential workers would create PODs at places like Sansum, Public Health, the county clinics, Neighborhood Clinics, and so on. County updates would be made at the Public Health website

In an email exchange earlier on Tuesday, Steve Popkin, CEO of Lompoc Valley Medical Center, said that the Moderna vaccine, which was granted an emergency use authorization last week, is expected to arrive in the county on Christmas Eve. 

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Marian Regional Medical Center expects to get about 1,000 doses, said Candice Monge, Marian’s chief nursing officer. Cottage did not yet know how much of the drug it might receive or when. Earlier, the county had estimated it would receive enough doses of the Moderna vaccine for 6,600 people. Popkin said he expects to get enough Moderna vaccine to protect the remaining front-line workers and the residents at the Lompoc Comprehensive Care Center skilled nursing facility.

As for the current vaccines’ efficacy against a COVID mutation identified in England and South Africa, Ansorg said scientists and the vaccine makers saw no evidence the new strain could evade the vaccines. Ansorg said it was common for viruses to mutate and this one seemed to spread more easily. 

U.S. labs had not yet seen the variant in North America, but other countries do far more genetic testing, media reports state. England, for example, has a sample rate of 8 percent, where the U.S. samples 0.3 percent for genetic coding.

A question about surge beds led to Ansorg’s observation that medical workers “are already in burnout territory.” Adding surge beds really means adding to the number of patients a nurse or team care for. The possibility of surge beds existed, Ansorg indicated, but just one nurse getting sick could change that from day to day. The number of health-care workers who’ve contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began stands today at 780, according to the county’s dashboard.

BeWell’s Suzanne Grimmesey offered advice to those burned out and those worried about others who are burned out. Affirm those feelings, she said, ask for help, follow up, make phone calls or texts. Friends and families can say things therapists can’t, she said, like I love you, and I’ll always be here for you. And talking about self-harm or suicide will not make them happen, she said. Remove weapons, offer to talk about it, just listen, and make small plans like when you’ll next call. For help, call her department at (888) 868-1649.

Last up was Gregg Hart, who said after this, his 75th COVID press conference, he would be turning the reins over to Bob Nelson, the new supervisor for the 4th District, taking the place of Peter Adam.

“We are stronger safely apart” were Hart’s parting words.

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