Stubborn Prevalence of COVID in Santa Barbara County

Case Count and Hospitalizations Slowly Rising

Dr. Charles Fenzi of the Neighborhood Clinics said the true number of people who currently carry COVID-19 was uncertain because of home tests and asymptomatic people. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Just as Santa Barbara County was getting a taste of normalcy with mask mandates lifting, cases of COVID-19 are inching upward. Locally, new cases averaged 66 over the past seven days, compared to 63 the prior seven days — and 1,000 at the height of the Omicron surge in January. Around California, the seven-day average was 4,812 on May 3, compared to 3,286 one week before.

Medical professionals estimate the amount of virus in the community is actually much higher. “Given that Omicron variants are more transmissible but often cause no symptoms or milder disease, we are not capturing the true prevalence,” said Dr. Charles Fenzi of Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics. He added that there is no measure for asymptomatic carriers or those who test at home and are positive, leading to the actual number of positive cases to be much higher than formal reporting would indicate.

“The positivity rate does not necessarily speak to the impact of the virus on our communities, which is more accurately measured by the number of hospitalized patients and of those, the number who are critically ill,” said Dr. Naishadh Buch, chief operations officer of Lompoc Valley Medical Center.

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Santa Barbara County Public Health officials state that vaccinations are responsible for the downward trend, as our community now has a higher level of immunity, as well as more and better treatment options available to them, compared to the previous year.

Given the county’s rate of vaccination — 80 percent with at least one and 73 percent with two full doses among those eligible for the vaccine — and the relative mildness of the current Omicron variant, the new metric of hospitalization and critical care is low, but going up slowly nonetheless. Ten patients at the county’s three hospitals are currently hospitalized due to the virus and two patients are in the ICU, compared to the year’s low of four hospitalized and zero in ICU back on April 15.

One vaccine fell out of the picture on Thursday, however, when the Food and Drug Administration limited the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to individuals who could not or would not accept an mRNA vaccine. The vaccine was paused briefly in April 2021 due several rare incidents of blood clotting, which can occur one to two weeks after vaccination. As of March 18, 2022, 60 cases and nine deaths were attributed to the syndrome, known as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia, and the FDA decided the numbers warranted limiting the use of the vaccine.

COVID-19 continues to take its own toll, with the United States crossing the grim threshold of 1 million total deaths on May 4. In Santa Barbara County, two people died of COVID on each of the past three days. Three of them were over the age of 70; two were in their thirties or forties; one person was between the ages of 18-29 and had underlying medical conditions. Altogether, 687 people have died in the county of COVID, and 477 others are considered infectious today.

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