Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

With holiday festivities come winter viruses, and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department (PHD) is encouraging residents to once again break out their masks.

Cases of COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and the flu impacted Californians earlier than usual this year and have been on the rise since the beginning of December. Public Health officials are recommending residents to get vaccinated against influenza and COVID, including the new bivalent booster, if they have not already, in order to be better protected against more severe illness, hospitalization, and death from these viruses.

“The PHD is strongly recommending to wear a high-quality mask in public indoor settings, like public transportation, stores, offices, etc,” said Henning Ansorg, the county’s public health officer. “This will reduce the risk of catching any of the circulating winter virus illnesses.” 

Daily average COVID-19 cases in the state have fluctuated this month, but have recently remained between 7,000 and a high of 8,669. In Santa Barbara County, as of December 22, there were 773 new cases reported since December 1, with a daily average of 110 new cases over the seven days prior. That is a 20 percent increase from the average two weeks ago, but according to CDC definitions, COVID-19 community levels and hospitalizations have remained low in the county

There were two COVID-related deaths reported in the county between December 16 and 22. As of the 22nd, there were 55 COVID-positive patients in county hospitals, and only six available ICU beds. 

According to Ansorg, hospitals in the county “are able to cope with the rate of new hospital admissions. We do have sufficient capacity in the ICU’s and with pediatric beds as well.” 

Statewide flu activity increased from moderate to high in early December this year, and has remained high. However, in Santa Barbara County, influenza activity has remained moderate (between 10 and 20 percent), and zero Influenza-associated deaths have been reported so far this season, according to Public Health’s December 10 report

As stated in the December 10 report, “This season there have been 8 clusters of non-COVID-19 Upper Respiratory Illness reported in congregate settings, 6 clusters were positive for RSV rather than flu.”

RSV cases were reported to be increasing significantly in November, with more than 400 cases in Santa Barbara County this season, and more hospitalizations in the county compared to last year. Common symptoms of RSV include stuffy or runny nose, cough, headache, and low-grade fever, which often resolve after a week or two.

California Department of Public Health officials say that most cases of childhood respiratory illness, like RSV, are mild and resolve on their own, with treatment at home to ease discomfort.  But parents should know what signs and symptoms to look for just in case their child needs medical attention. 

“As a pediatrician who specializes in infections, and a parent, it is concerning to see the rise in RSV and flu in babies, young children and our elderly population,” said CDPH Epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan in a November press release. “It is crucial we are aware of prevention methods, but also, how to care for our loved ones at home, and what symptoms to be aware of for parents to seek care for their children.”

Signs parents should look out for and that would warrant a trip to the hospital include fast, irregular breathing or signs of the child struggling to breath, symptoms of dehydration, discoloration of the skin, decreased activity and alertness, poor sleep, fussiness, ear tugging or drainage, and fever above 104 degrees. 

As for general advice for staying healthy this holiday season, Ansorg recommends residents “stay home if you experience any virus symptoms (runny nose, sore throat, headaches, fevers), in order to prevent further spread of illness,” “wash your hands frequently,” “have activities outdoors as much as possible,” and, of course, “wear a high-quality mask in public indoor settings.”

“If you have very vulnerable family members at your festivities or gatherings, consider for everyone participating to take a COVID test on the morning of the planned gathering,” Ansorg said. 

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