In the past three days, the county reported 3,122 new cases — a new record — with no fewer than 612 active cases—another new record. | Credit: S.B. County Public Health

The county supervisors started off their New Year with warm talk — well deserved — about civility, respect, collegiality — “the culture of active listening,” they called it — something they’d all exemplified over the previous 12 months, despite stark ideological differences. But when the conversation turned to the county’s record-setting surge in new COVID cases, it became evident just how much active listening those differences required. 

County Public Health recently released  projections — based on what are probably worst-case scenarios — indicating the number of new COVID-related hospitalizations could increase to 848 patients in the next four weeks and the number of patients sent to the ICU would jump from 10 to 241. More dramatically, the number of deaths, they were told by Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso, could shoot from the present 578 to no less than 781 by the month’s end.

It was the first time in two years of similar briefings that Do-Reynoso extrapolated so darkly into the future. Supervisor Bob Nelson responded by castigating the numbers as “reckless and irresponsible,” adding, “They only promote panic.” Later, he suggested they could provide lethal fodder for teens already teetering on the brink of suicide. 

Even without such dire projections, the latest COVID stats were sobering enough. In the past three days, the county reported 3,122 new cases — a new record — with no less than 612 active cases — another new record. The good news is that the current surge has not sparked the volume of hospitalizations or death rates occasioned by prior surges. But even so, the number of reported hospitalizations — 87, with 10 in the ICU — is significantly higher than in recent months. 

Of those hospitalized, 42 are at Cottage Health, which also has half the ICU caseload. The real issue is not so much bed space as it is staffing. After two years, burnout has become the new normal for many hospital workers. Nationally, there’s a critical shortage of nurses. Cottage currently employs 1,289 nurses and reports 137 vacant positions. The new variant, while not so virulent, is far more contagious. Cottage officials acknowledge their own staff — and members of their families — are getting exposed, infected, and sick. They need time off to care for themselves and their relatives. “The sheer number of cases in the community is much higher than previous surges,” stated Cottage public information officer Maria Zate in a written communication. “That is likely to mean record numbers of hospitalizations in the weeks ahead. Our hospitals are now in the position of preparing for an emergency situation that we hope does not occur.”

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Supervisors Nelson and Steve Lavagnino — who represent North County districts and skew more to the political right — expressed interest in learning to live with COVID rather than pursuing strategies designed to squash it. Lavagnino also suggested the eruption of new cases — sparked by the omnipresent but less virulent Omicron variant — might constitute a “backward blessing” of sorts, “burning through the population,” he said, leading eventually to the promised land of herd immunity.

Supervisor Das Williams countered that Omicron could also kill twice as many people even if it’s only one-tenth as virulent; it’s that contagious. He took issue with those who complained of government overreach by unelected health-care bureaucrats. “I don’t know of any freedoms of mine that are being taken away other than having to wear a mask,” Williams stated. The only real question, he stated, “is do you take seriously the number of new hospitalization cases?” 

Do-Reynoso added that Omicron needs to be taken seriously no matter how less lethal it might be. Omicron has its equivalent of long-haulers, she cautioned, people whose illness drags on and recovery remains incomplete. And Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg warned about the “mass absenteeism” it’s already generated. The supervisors heard, for example, how the county’s sole acute-care psychiatric hospital stopped accepting new admissions. Driving this drastic shift are staffing shortages triggered by the Omicron variant. 

Better known is the outbreak at the County jail, where 208 inmates have recently tested positive. (See Ryan P. Cruz’s in-depth report on this here.) Sheriff Bill Brown said he intends to move some inmates to the new North County jail within the coming week to slow down the outbreak. He said only one of the inmates required hospitalization, and only 38 were symptomatic. Of those infected, he said 135 were unvaccinated, and 73 had been inoculated. 

At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff continues to cover every aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Support the important work we do by making a direct contribution.


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