World and county experience roller coaster of challenges
The coronavirus pandemic took the entire world by surprise in 2020.
It impacted every individual, family, business and aspect of life as we knew it.
The outbreak of COVID-19 infected more than 76 million people worldwide, took the lives of at least 1.6 million and spread to nearly every country in the world.
From event cancellations to lockdowns to surges in cases to mask mandates to, finally, the most rapidly developed vaccination to date, the unfolding of COVID-19 has been a rollercoaster.
It all started in a Chinese seafood and poultry market at the end of December 2019. On New Year’s Eve in 2019, the government in Wuhan, China, confirmed health officials were treating dozens of cases of an unknown pneumonia. Mere days later, researchers identified the new virus, but said there was no evidence it was readily spread by humans, according to a New York Times report.
The first COVID-related death was reported on Jan. 11, 2020 in China, from a regular Wuhan market customer. Throughout January, more and more countries reported COVID-19 cases, such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
Jan. 21 marked the first case in the U.S. A Washington state resident had just returned from a trip to Wuhan, which was subsequently closed off to all traveling.
On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency, and the day after, the Trump administration suspended entry into the U.S. by any foreign nationals who had traveled to China in the past 14 days.
The second day of February 2020 was the first reported coronavirus death outside of China, and a few days later, a Chinese doctor who tried to ring the alarm of the virus’s severity died from the virus.
On Feb. 11, the name “COVID-19” was officially attached to the new virus.
Also in early February, Dr. Henning Ansorg, the Santa Barbara County public health officer, told the News-Press, “I do take it seriously. Everybody does … Knock on wood, so far it hasn’t exploded into anything disastrous at all … I am concerned about this, but I actually remain perhaps even more concerned about influenza and its impact on human health year after year.”
In late February, Italy’s first major outbreak spun out of control, marking the beginning of widespread cancellations and lockdowns. Finally, the pandemic made its way to the U.S., with the first COVID-19 death (known at the time) in the nation announced on Feb. 29.
March was the month where the pandemic quickly became very local. On March 6, a passenger on a Grand Princess cruise ship from Ventura tested positive for the coronavirus. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency that week after another passenger on that cruise died after contracting the virus.
A couple days later, Santa Barbara City College, UCSB and Westmont moved to remote instruction through April, and Santa Barbara County began preparing to declare a state of emergency by restricting cruises and public gatherings.
Large events were canceled, sporting events became fan-less, and safety measures were implemented for local nursing homes.
On March 11, a local health emergency was declared, and an order was issued for everyone to socially distance.
All Santa Barbara County public schools closed along with private schools. Worship services moved online. The California Department of Public Health called for the immediate closure of all bars, nightclubs, pubs, wineries and breweries.
And on March 15, county health officials confirmed the first positive case of coronavirus.
Soon, the statewide stay-at-home order was implemented, and small businesses tried to find ways to band together to stay afloat. On March 24, Dr. Ansorg said, “Assume the virus is in your community.”
Day one of April 2020 came with the announcement of the first COVID-19 death in the county. The Santa Barbara City Council began approving COVID-19 financial assistance for downtown businesses, hotels and annual funding for nonprofits. Easter worship services were moved online, and the public was encouraged to not gather for the holiday. In addition, all airlines announced face mask requirements.
Early May came with hope of reopening, entering into “phase two” of COVID-19, but the end of May came with a requirement for everyone to wear face coverings in public, as more evidence came out about the transmission of the virus.
To the community’s disappointment, on May 21, Fiesta 2020, also known as Old Spanish Days, announced that its signature events would be held online or on television. It marked one of only a handful of cancellations of the 96-year-old tradition of live concerts, swirling dancers and joyous celebration.
In mid-June, a health officer order allowed more sectors to reopen with modifications, such as hotels, childcare programs, museums, professional sports, gyms, restaurants, schools and higher education. Cases were still climbing, but slowly.
However, with a quick turnaround the following month, the county rolled back its previous openings, and all the businesses that had just reopened were ordered to shut down again. County beaches were closed for the Fourth of July weekend, and local COVID-19 testing sites began backing up for days, and sometimes weeks.
Santa Maria began emerging as the area most impacted by the virus with the highest case numbers. It was determined that congregate housing was causing the increasing numbers and disproportionately affecting minorities.
Also in July, the number of local homeless encampments seemed to rise. The apparent increase happened after the state followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance to avoid breaking up encampments to avoid spreading COVID-19.
In August, the state’s multi-color tier system was introduced, and non-essential businesses remained closed.
In addition, the county Main Jail outbreak continued to spread, with many inmates testing positive. The CDC started to develop a plan to distribute a coronavirus vaccine as well.
September brought some hope, with barbershops and hair salons able to reopen. Leading physicians such as Dr. Ansorg and Dr. David Fisk, the medical director of infection prevention and control at Cottage Health, stressed the need to improve testing.
Cases were beginning to decline, even in Santa Maria.
In early September, when asked when life would get back to normal, Dr. Ansorg told the News-Press, “The honest answer is I don’t know. But I had a really pleasant surprise when the numbers were trending downward … If we see less transmission of the virus, then definitely more things can open.”
At the end of September, businesses were allowed to resume indoor operations at reduced capacity after a unanimous decrease in cases.
In October, Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara, tested positive for COVID-19, along with President Donald Trump. Both showed signs of recovery within a matter of days.
The county encouraged residents to avoid celebrating Halloween in person or gathering, and the county continued to push residents to shop locally and support small businesses as they struggled keeping their doors open.
Come November, Santa Barbara County moved backward under more restrictive orders, due to increasing cases and deaths.
As part of the roller coaster, the county, which progressed into the red tier, returned to the more severe, purple level.
But health officials expressed optimism for the COVID-19 vaccines.
Then came the roller coaster again. On Nov. 20, the state issued another stay-at-home order for counties in the purple tier, and the CDC reported that children’s visits to the emergency room for mental health had risen.
And Santa Barbara County fought the regional stay-at-home order by Gov. Gavin Newsom that was issued on Dec. 4, arguing to form a new Central Coast region, where ICU capacity was well above 15%.
But December also came with arguably the most positive news yet for the pandemic-stricken world.
The vaccine was here.
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11, and the first doses arrived Dec. 17 at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, Santa Maria’s Marian Regional Medical Center and Lompoc Valley Medical Center.
One day later, the FDA approved Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use.
After receiving one of the first COVID vaccines, Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease physician at Cottage Health, said the vaccine should change nothing in terms of mask-wearing, social distancing and isolating, but, “As we enter into this next phase right now, to have an assurance that I have my safety belt on a little bit tighter for what’s ahead is very appreciated.”
Now the county is entering into the new year cautiously, but with hope. This past year consisted of countless losses: precious lives taken by COVID-19 and other pandemic-related events; small businesses closing their doors; rich traditions canceled, in some cases for the first time ever; jobs and livelihoods lost; a recession; and many more unprecedented hardships as a result of the pandemic and the shutdown of the world.
However, there’s always tomorrow. The world, the nation and the county await vaccinations and the reopenings of businesses.
Everyone’s crossing their fingers.