Public health officer points to county’s high vaccination rate
Though the U.S. is eyeing an uptick in new infections associated with the COVID-19 delta variant, local officials say this specific strain is not of particular concern in Santa Barbara County due to the region’s high vaccination rate.
The delta variant, which was first identified in India, has now been reported in 85 countries and accounts for 20% of new cases in the U.S., according to data from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The variant has been labeled a “variant of concern” by the CDC due to the virus strain’s increased transmissibility.
The strain was also dubbed the “great threat” to the nation’s attempt to stamp out COVID-19 by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, during a White House briefing Tuesday.
Yet, in Santa Barbara County, where 57.4% of the eligible 12-and-older population is fully vaccinated, local health officials say a large portion of the population has adequate protection from the delta strain. According to the CDC, the vaccines widely distributed in the U.S. offer adequate protection against the new variant, and it’s those who remain unvaccinated who face the greatest threat.
According to Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s public health officer, the delta variant can spread twice as fast as the original COVID-19 variant, but those who are fully vaccinated are not at risk of contracting the virus.
“(The delta variant) is in no way concerning (in Santa Barbara County) at this point,” Dr. Ansorg told the News-Press. “However, I always stress that every unvaccinated person is at higher risk. (If an) unvaccinated person encounters this variant, it is easier to get infected.”
Dr. Ansorg added that nationally, the delta variant is becoming more prevalent in states where the vaccination rates remain low, particularly in the southeast region of the U.S. And while the delta variant has been detected in Santa Barbara County, it was shown in only two of the April 25 tests collected for variant surveillance.
Now, with the county’s low positivity rate and a small number of test results to use for surveillance, Dr. Ansorg said a better measure is to look at Los Angeles County, where instances of the delta variant are increasing rapidly.
According to Dr. Ansorg, test samples have shown a 40% increase week over week with cases associated with the delta variant in Los Angeles County. He presumes that Santa Barbara County is not far behind this rate.
With the delta variant expected to become more dominant in the coming weeks, Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease specialist at Cottage Health, told the News-Press that she remains concerned about the unvaccinated people in the county.
She said it is not a question of “if” the delta variant hits Santa Barbara County, but rather a question of when.
“I think that as a community, we are quite well protected,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “I do worry that there are groups of people that are unvaccinated and are still vulnerable when … the delta variant really hits our community and becomes our dominant version of COVID.”
“I think what we’ve learned from the rest of the world is that the delta variant has advantages that are going to put it ahead of all other variants,” she said. “So in the coming weeks, it’s going to be very likely that more cases are going to be due to the delta COVID-19 variant.”
White House officials, meanwhile, say it is likely that the U.S. will miss President Joe Biden’s goal of partially vaccinating 70% of the adult population by the Fourth of July. The Biden administration targeted July 4 as a benchmark vaccination goal, but officials say it will likely take a few additional weeks to reach the number.
With California relaxing its distancing and masking guidelines in many places, Dr. Ansorg said there still remains a chance for potential outbreak among unvaccinated individuals in various areas of the county. He’s advising unvaccinated individuals to avoid crowds, especially indoors, as the delta variant becomes more prevalent.
“Santa Barbara County is quite diverse, so you could end up in an area where the vaccination rate is really low,” Dr. Ansorg said. “Let’s say Fourth of July festivities and things like that — if they go on outdoors it’s safer, but if there’s a lot of parties going on indoors, there is a possibility for an outbreak. If that (outbreak) were to be from the delta virus, it would have the potential to infect double the amount of people the previous virus was able to infect.”
He added, “There’s a potential in outbreaks for Santa Barbara County, but it would have to be where a significant percentage of the people who are exposed are unvaccinated.”
As local officials are eyeing the potential spread of the new variant, case rates remain low in the county.
On Wednesday, the Public Health Department reported three new cases of COVID-19 and no new deaths. One case was reported in Lompoc, one was reported in Santa Maria and one was reported in the South Coast areas of Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria.
This brings the county’s active case total to 32 infections.
On Wednesday, nine people were hospitalized for COVID-19, five of which were recovering in the ICU.