As Santa Barbara County sees a large increase in positive COVID-19 cases, congregate housing facilities present a higher risk of spreading the virus due to close living quarters.
On Wednesday, the County Public Health Department reported 160 new cases in Santa Barbara County, bringing the total of confirmed cases to 5,282. There are now 342 active cases and 4,900 have recovered.
The city of Santa Maria has seen the largest spike in the past couple of weeks, with the daily number of cases some days quadrupling the number of cases in any other city in the county. As of Wednesday, Santa Maria reported 63 new cases, bringing its total number of positive cases to 2,327, with 123 still active and 2,059 recovered.
Currently, there’s an investigation by the PHD into motels used for H2A worker housing operated by Alco Harvesting. As of Monday, there were 50 positive COVID-19 cases related to the outbreak in this congregate housing.
Mark van de Kamp, spokesman for the city of Santa Maria, said he asked Alco how many employees it has in Santa Maria to understand the scope of the outbreak, but has not yet been provided with that information.
“Code enforcement is doing some proactive work reaching out to property owners and farmers in the agricultural sector to see what they need,” he said, adding that the state is responsible for inspecting H2A housing.
In addition, bilingual individuals in code enforcement have gone out into the community to speak with Hispanic-owned businesses and nonprofits, providing signs and reminding customers and visitors about spacing, he said.
But, when it comes to congregate housing, he said there’s not much that can be done about these facilities and the community spread they potentially cause.
“Santa Maria has long acknowledged that the single-family dwellings are actually occupied by two or three families, and that’s economics,” Mr. van de Kamp said. “People are trying to make ends meet. You have to be culturally aware that that is part of life for a great number of families.”
Tuesday night, Santa Maria’s city manager announced the creation of a task force to continue to educate the community.
Dr. Paige Batson, the deputy director of community health at the PHD, said people should be mindful that when it seems like there’s an imminent outbreak, it probably actually happened days or weeks ago.
“When we are reporting, there’s a lot of ways to report the data. You can technically report when the person became symptomatic, but we don’t. You can report when you get the result, but we don’t. You can report when they actually got the lab specimen, which we do,” she said.
Dr. Batson said all the individuals who tested positive from H2A housing in Santa Maria are isolated and quarantined, but she is not aware of their locations.
While an outbreak seems inevitable for congregate housing facilities, most in the city of Santa Barbara have managed to keep COVID-19 out.
Chuck Flacks is the program director for People Assisting The Homeless in Santa Barbara, which houses 100 homeless residents.
He said the shelter has benefited from additional resources and has taken in more residents. PATH had to downsize in order to maintain social distancing, but it received funding to remove 20 residents from the facility who were considered most at risk and put them up in a hotel, permanently.
“It’s possible that our residents are kind of like a family now and have been together for months, so because there hasn’t been any cases introduced, that may be part of why we haven’t seen anything,” Mr. Flacks said. “We’ve had a lot of high compliance. There’s a lot of mutual respect.”
PATH has only had four residents present COVID-like symptoms, but they all tested negative. In addition, one staff member went home with symptoms and hasn’t received her results yet.
Mark Gisler, the executive director of the Salvation Army Santa Barbara Transition and Recovery Center, said that the facility had two people who were tested, but their results came back negative. He added the PHD has been providing quick responses to all the shelters.
“If there’s any concerns that could be COVID-related, (the PHD) comes by, picks them up, tests them and holds onto them at a local hotel until everything comes back clear,” Mr. Gisler said.
This protocol is pretty standard for homeless shelters all across the county.
Santa Barbara Rescue Mission has also only had one test come back positive, but there was no outbreak, according to President Rolf Geyling.
“It’s really a testament to our staff and how hard they work and how careful they are in just maintaining good practices,” he said. “We’ve been getting the facility professionally cleaned once a week from top to bottom.”
If individuals did need to isolate, Rescue Mission doesn’t have the resources to do so, but the county would make sure to provide it. He said he hopes it never comes to that.
“In the midst of a lot of challenges and a lot of different perspectives on homelessness, we want to make sure a lot of compassion remains,” Mr. Geyling said.