As the COVID pandemic fades in Santa Barbara’s rearview mirror, masks are coming off, cruise ships are arriving, and tour buses have begun prowling around the Old Mission. At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, the atmosphere alternated between a sense of thankfulness that the end was near, and gratitude for the years of grinding work by the medical profession and the Public Health officials who gave what might be the last presentation on the county’s COVID-19 disease statistics.
Things have indeed gotten better, said Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso, recalling that March 15 is exactly two years ago to the day that Santa Barbara reported its first case. “I remember because it’s my niece’s birthday. I had texted her my congratulations, and the next text I got said, ‘Oh, Van, we have our first confirmed case.'”
Supervisor Bob Nelson recalled how his daughter was happily expecting an extended 2020 spring break. “We were thinking this would last a few days” Supervisor Gregg Hart had asked for his former mother-in-law’s take on the pandemic. “She’s more than 90 years old and has been through a lot of things: the Depression, World War Two, recessions, world strife,” said Hart. “She said this was the hardest thing that ever happened” because of the isolation she endured this time around.
Do-Reynoso ran down the numbers that the COVID peaks had climbed to after the various summer and winter holidays, the purple tier that gradually eased to orange, and the hospital critical care units with dwindling COVID patient numbers.
Santa Barbara County finally reached what would have been the yellow tier — which required a case rate of seven. Today, the case rate is 4.1 per 100,000 residents, a tumble of 69 percent in the past two weeks. Those colored tiers were dropped in June 2021 when the state reopened, but then the Delta surge hit and the state placed restrictions again.
The life-saving vaccinations became available in December 2020, reaching a county high on March 31, 2021, when 8,491 people lined up for shots in one day. Among eligible county residents, 72 percent are fully vaccinated, and 79.9 percent have had at least one shot. Nearly 85,000 people have been ill with the disease since March 2020.
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The vaccines were unable to save all lives, however. Do-Reynoso also reported that two people had died yesterday, both age 70 or more, one with underlying health conditions and one in a congregate care facility. Altogether, COVID had claimed 665 lives, including one today of a 30- to 49-year-old individual in Santa Maria who had comorbidities.
Do-Reynoso’s department wasn’t relaxing its vigilance, she said, but looking back on the “twists and turns” of the past two years, she has every expectation that SARS-CoV-2 will change and evolve. Adaptation and surveillance would be Public Health’s focus, she said, as well as adding testing sites in Carpinteria and maintaining the ones in Lompoc, Santa Barbara, and Santa Maria with the state support that continues through June 30.
Masks continue to be required on public transportation by federal law; in jails and prisons, health-care settings, and long-term care facilities by state law; and County Public Health strongly recommends keeping them on indoors and in schools and childcare facilities. Rates had dropped so low at Santa Barbara schools — four out of 1,300 students and two of 154 teachers positive the first week of March — that masks are now optional. The schools will continue to test 10 percent of their populations weekly, as vaccination rates among children are relatively low, less than 50 percent for ages 5-11, and less than 70 percent for ages 12-15.
And, as Supervisor Das Williams pointed out, “We should celebrate this moment in society, but we shouldn’t conclude things are over.” In China, where this all began mid-winter 2019, millions of people in five cities are in a massive Omicron lockdown because of China’s zero-COVID policy. The variant circulating is largely the original Omicron mutation, though the BA.2 Omicron offshoot is gaining ground. BA.2 is roughly a third again as contagious as Omicron, and in Santa Barbara County, four cases have been sequenced. The Centers for Disease Control estimated on Tuesday that BA.2 represents 23 percent of cases in the U.S., but its virulence remains uncharted.
Supervisor Joan Hartmann brought the hearing to a close by thanking all county staff for keeping the county’s ship of state afloat during the emergency. “We sure have been through a lot together,” she said. “Now, it’s time to take a deep breath, because we’ve got more work ahead.”