“We have to get into the persuasion business,” Supervisor Gregg Hart observed this morning, noting how the rate of vaccinations was slowing while the supply was growing. Hart has reason to be concerned. Van Do-Reynoso, head of County Public Health, announced that the county’s case rate sat at 4.6 as of today, which is an increase from last week’s 3.6. That rate of infection per 100,000 county residents is what keeps Santa Barbara in the orange tier and businesses open, and it’s getting perilously close to the 5.0 red-tier threshold and its increase in restrictions.
New walk-in clinics and more mobile clinics are rolling out to reach more people more conveniently, said Do-Reynoso, and more than 3,000 people have walked in for a vaccine since the vans and buses moved out on April 15. A no-appointment-needed clinic is set for Lompoc on Saturday to give the “one and done” Johnson & Johnson vaccine, said Do-Reynoso, and another on Sunday at the Goleta Community Center — 15 walk-up clinics in all will be held this coming week. (See publichealthsbc.org/vaccine for all locations and times.)
One of the mobile clinic stops will be at UC Santa Barbara on Thursday; Isla Vista residents without cars had a 90-minute bus ride to the Santa Barbara Hilton for the last set of Public Health vaccination appointments. This is an especially important group to reach because the local and national cases were showing a sharp increase among people in their twenties and younger than 17. “That youngest age group had been 3 percent,” said Jackie Ruiz, spokesperson for Public Health, “and 20 percent is more common now.”
Ruiz said the walk-up clinics were successful at making the vaccine easier to find and get: “The opportunity is really wonderful. At Santa Maria last week, about 30 percent of the people were walkups.” And the age for vaccines is soon expected to be lowered to 12 years old, once Pfizer gets approval from the FDA for an emergency-use authorization, Do-Reynoso said. Pfizer is expected to file for full licensing of its vaccine shortly, she added, but when it would be approved is the “million-dollar question,” she said in answer to Supervisor Bob Nelson’s question about whether employers could require the vaccine.
Among the tri-counties, vaccine hesitancy was highest in Santa Barbara, at 12 percent compared to Ventura’s 10 percent and San Luis Obispo’s 11 percent. Ruiz said Public Health had heard concerns about future fertility, long-term side effects, and a general “wait and see” posture countywide. For the fully vaccinated — people beyond the two-week antibody-buildup period after the last shot — benefits exist, such as visiting without a mask with others who’ve completed the vaccine series, indoors or outdoors, and even a visit with a single low-risk household that isn’t 100 percent vaccinated.
Altogether the county stands at 41 percent of people over the age of 16 who are vaccinated, Do-Reynoso told the supervisors. People of Latin descent remained disproportionately high among positive cases, hospitalizations, and death, she said, with Santa Maria having the highest number of cases in January through March. Most of the county’s cases developed symptoms, and 36 percent were traced to infection through close contact. Mask wearing, hand washing, distancing, and getting vaccinated continued to be the state of art for avoiding the illness, Ruiz iterated for at least the millionth time.
Among the potential causes for the jump in case rate this past week could be the emerging predominance of the variant first spotted in the United Kingdom, dubbed the B.1.1.7 variant. In UCSB’s genetic sequencing for variants, April’s results reveal the more contagious U.K. variant rising to 66 percent of samples compared to 37 percent in March.
Hart, who led the COVID press conferences during the pandemic’s first year, said, “You don’t have to look far around the world to see this virus is not contained,” referring to India, which has a vast surge that is breaking the medical system in a country that manufactures vaccines. “It’s not unimaginable here,” Hart said, “seeing the large number of people who are not vaccinated.” But though India has been much in the news, its case rate of 26 per 100,000 people contrasts with Uruguay’s 84, the world’s highest, and 49 in Sweden, for instance, as the New York Times summarized this weekend.
Different studies offer different interpretations of the Indian variants. The “double mutant” variety is now called B.1.617, and the Centers for Disease Control has so far given it a lesser classification as a “variant of interest” rather than one of concern. The U.K. variant is thought to be driving the surge in some Indian states. California had yet to find the B.1.617 among the variants counted in the state as of April 28, but the slightly vaccine- and antibody-resistant Brazil and South Africa variants are both here and both considered “variants of concern” by the CDC.
The state has sequenced over 41,000 samples as of late April, and statewide, the West Coast variant outstrips the U.K. variant — 15,000 cases to 3,400 — which is contrary to the small Santa Barbara sample of 18 for the month of April. One instance of the South African variant was noted in early April in Ventura, however, and five of the Brazilian. Neither has yet been discerned in Santa Barbara, which has a limited ability to test 50 samples at most per week.
That may soon change. Among the Board of Supervisors approvals this morning was an extra $19 million to fund the epidemiology laboratory and staff at County Public Health and its partners through July 2023. The “unanticipated revenue” from the California Public Health Department includes just about all of Public Health’s COVID activities, from testing and contact tracing to vaccinations and surveillance — as well as the sequencing needed to test for variants.