Elementary schools may reopen as early as next Wednesday, but only if the current adjusted COVID case rate stays at 25 or below. A smiling Dr. Henning Ansorg made the announcement on Friday, adding information on the potential to open sports activities and an admonition that schools would only open if the numbers stayed low through Monday evening. “We are really excited about this new development because we know how important it is to get our kids back in school,” said Ansorg, Santa Barbara County’s health officer.
The county’s case rate had been in the 70s and 80s, Ansorg said, “not so long ago.” As cases were going down swiftly, reaching the red tier was even possible within weeks, he thought, as long as people continued to wear masks, stay socially distanced, and avoid gathering. “It takes really only a couple of weeks to get down,” Ansorg said. “It can be very rapid, depending on our collective behavior.”
Super Bowl Sunday had the most recent super-spreader potential, and Ansorg thought any increase in cases would become evident by next Friday.
The current case rate of 25 (for every 100,000 people living in the county) allows transitional kindergarten through 6th grades to open. Achieving the red tier, at which the case rate is 7 per 100,000, would allow upper grades to reopen as well.
Six public school districts and one charter school are ready to open, Ansorg said, because their safety plans are already approved by county and state public health departments. And they have a window of three weeks in which to open, even if the case rate should rise during that time.
For counties in the red tier, outdoor sports practice and competition may resume as early as February 26. Counties in the purple tier, which is where Santa Barbara is currently, could start youth athletics again if the case rate drops to 14. Guidelines on testing, hygiene, safety, and informed consent for players, coaches, and parents have been formulated by the state and can be found here.
Also on Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that a special 10 percent set-aside of vaccine for teachers would start on March 1. As far as teacher safety before complete vaccination, Ansorg assured that studies uniformly showed that children prior to adolescence spread the virus less than adults or teenagers. “That is a fact,” he stated. He also believed that the schools, which have been teaching small groups of children — wearing masks and social distancing — have gained experience with COVID safety practices. “They know what they’re doing. They know what they’re getting into,” Ansorg said. Public Health was committed to getting the vaccine to educators, he said, stating that the schools’ safety plans made the risk of catching the virus no higher “than in your own family.”
More new rules had come from the state on Friday afternoon, said Van Do-Reynoso, director of Public Health. Fully 30 percent of the vaccine the county would get as of March 1 was to be allocated to education and childcare workers, food and agricultural workers, and emergency services personnel. The other 70 percent was for the existing 65 years and older cohort being vaccinated now.
Do-Reynoso was visibly frustrated that no further information had come from the state about the 10 percent reserved for teachers; she said the education and childcare group in the county totaled 22,646 individuals. Food, ag, and emergency workers were another 38,845 people. This group was “enormous,” she said, clearly exceeding the amount of vaccine she was getting, though that quantity has crept upward.
The county’s vaccine count was just under 6,000 doses last week and is at 8,980 this week, apparently despite the snowstorm delays. And in a couple of weeks, her agency’s clinics will get an additional 500 doses from the federal government as well as the continuing state allocation. “Moving forward? I don’t know,” Do-Reynoso said. “We can’t even anticipate what we will get.” Public Health was geared up to give 15,000 vaccines a week, and so were Cottage and Marian hospitals, she added.
Since December, 68,250 doses had been given — roughly two-thirds of them as first doses. As far as getting a complete count of vaccine distribution, Do-Reynoso acknowledged that CVS and Rite Aid were getting vaccine directly from the federal government — and administering them to people eligible under Santa Barbara County guidelines — but that those numbers were not shared with her department.
The next bump in the road for Public Health is the state’s transfer of vaccine distribution to Blue Shield. It’s a big change with no clarity, said Do-Reynoso, though she’d set a meeting for March 2 “to discuss the implications for Public Health.”
Lompoc Valley Medical Center CEO Steve Popkin shared Do-Reynoso’s apprehension of what that might bring. In his weekly update released on Friday, Popkin wrote: “Unless there are further changes (which is very possible), Santa Barbara County is slated to go live with the State/Blue Shield appointment scheduling website, myturn.ca.gov, on March 15. At that time, unless the State changes its plan, LVMC will no longer be a vaccination provider. The vaccinations for the Lompoc area will be done by the Public Health Department, pharmacies, and potentially others.” He added that his hospital would vaccinate as many people as they could before the 15th.
A Question of Equity
Do-Reynoso summarized recent demographic information, which is available across multiple categories at Public Health’s COVID dashboard. In 2020, the county saw 17,678 cases, 595 of which were among children younger than 9 years old. The greatest number of cases were among 20-29 year olds (4,489), 30-39 year olds (3,248), and 40-49 year olds (2,603). Hospitalizations and cases were outsize for working-age adults compared to their population in the county, she observed. The majority of deaths occurred among those older than 50, especially among seniors over 70, who represent 11 percent of the county’s population but 67 percent of deaths.
Looked at by race and ethnicity, the Latino population continued to experience more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths than their relative numbers in the county, which Do-Reynoso said was caused by historic and ongoing social, economic, and health-care disparities.
In that regard, Do-Reynoso addressed the Independent’s article about a 92-year-old woman without formal identification papers who was turned away from a vaccination clinic. “In reality,” she said, “this community member did not have an appointment. I am sorry this occurred, and I want to give additional information in the hopes it will dispel any fears of vaccination in the community, especially our undocumented neighbors.”
Do-Reynoso explained that her clinics watch every dose carefully, only bringing as much vaccine as they had appointments for “to avoid spoilage and waste. On that particular date, we were booked and did not have appointments available to offer when she approached our clinic.”
They have vaccinated people with appointments who forgot their identifications, she said. And those can be a Costco card, work ID, bank card, letter from an employer or school, money transfer receipt, matricula consular, or pay stub. It does not need to be a government ID. “Documentation will not be a barrier to getting a vaccine,” Do-Reynoso said.
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