Further reopenings on hold despite downtrend in COVID cases
Although Santa Barbara County has reduced its positive COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, the county remains in the state’s lowest tier of the state’s four-tier color coated system.
On Tuesday, the California Department of Public Health announced the county’s first official report card number in the new data system was 8.3 cases per 100,000. This was down from the Aug. 31 seven-day average of nine per 100,000, though the county needs to decrease its average to seven cases per 100,000 in order to move into the next tier, the red tier, officials said.
The county’s reported positivity rate is 5.5%, below the standard for the red tier. Even though the county’s test rate is in the red tier, the tier assignments are made based on the more restrictive tier, said Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, director of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.
“If we all continue to be extra vigilant we can keep this positive momentum going in the right direction and move to the red tier by the end of September,” said Gregg Hart, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, during Tuesday’s press conference.
County officials have met with officials at UCSB on several occasions in recent weeks to address the issue of gatherings as students return to the area. Dr. Do-Reynoso said the county supports UCSB’s decision to not hold in-person classes, and applauds UCSB and Santa Barbara City College in sending letters to their students alerting them that they will be held accountable for violating health officer orders or the student code of conduct.
The county is working with local stakeholders and campus officials to launch a new outreach education campaign, which will include outreach ambassadors.
“They do not approach parties or gatherings in progress, but will proactively provide information on health and safety during COVID, which is to avoid gatherings and the need to wear a face covering when in public,” Dr. Do-Reynoso said of the ambassadors.
The county Public Health Department also plans on partnering with UCSB to do pop-up testing in Isla Vista to test, trace and box in COVID-19, she said.
The county Public Health Department reported a total of 138 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, including just three new cases announced Tuesday. The county’s total number of cases is now 8,499.
A total of 216 cases remain active. Forty-four people remain hospitalized, including 17 in the Intensive Care Unit.
“Our reported cases for (Tuesday) are low because of the holiday weekend,” Dr. Do-Reynoso said. “We also double checked our testing volume from (Monday) and overall it was also low. We anticipate more lab results will trickle in over the next few days and our case numbers will stabilize to what we were reporting before the Labor Day weekend.”
Of the new cases announced Tuesday, one was in the city of Santa Barbara, which now has 1,139 confirmed cases, 27 of which are active. The geographic area associated with the other two cases was pending as of Tuesday.
Cottage Health issued an update on its numbers Tuesday, revealing that it is caring for a total of 22 patients across all campuses. Of those, 162 are acute care patients and 226 acute care beds remain available.
Five acute care patients are on ventilators and 85 ventilators remain available. Twelve acute care patients are in isolation with COVID-19 symptoms, and 11 are confirmed COVID-19 positive.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Mr. Hart shared that the state’s Employment Development Department has started to issue $900 supplemental federal unemployment insurance payments to jobless Californians. The payment covers three weeks of benefits retroactive to the week that ended Aug. 1 at the rate of $300 per week.
On Monday, the California labor secretary announced that the state has received federal approval for an additional two weeks, or $600, bringing the total benefit to $1,500, Mr. Hart said.
The additional $600 benefit will be sent out later than this week’s initial first payment, he said.
Also on Tuesday, Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, infectious disease specialist with Cottage Health, discussed how medical experts continue to learn more about how to treat, prevent and diagnose COVID-19.
“As we enter the fall and the winter, efficiently and correctly finding the patients who have this disease will be a cornerstone of our ongoing public health response,” she said.
Dr. Fitzgibbons shared information on the current COVID-19 tests that are available.
First was the PCR tests, which Dr. Fitzgibbons said were the “gold standard” on whether or not someone has contracted COVID-19. These tests are typically done with a swab of the nose or throat, but could also be done via saliva.
“When a positive PCR test confirms the diagnosis, we now know that the PCR can actually stay positive in that patient for up to three months, even though they, the patient, may stop being infectious to other people 10 or perhaps 20 days after their symptoms began,” she said. “In other words, the PCR used to diagnose a patient with COVID-19 isn’t very helpful after their illness, as it can stay positive for weeks or months even though that patient is no longer contagious.”
The second test is the antigen test, which generally has a lower sensitivity than the PCR and may be wrong and reveal a false negative.
“For this reason, it’s usually recommended that negative antigen tests are followed up with a PCR to confirm that a negative is really a true negative,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “This also means that the antigen test would be excellent for quickly confirming most people who are positive, but again, those who have a negative result will need a second test.”
One of the more popular antigen tests, BinaxNow by Abbott, has been set at a very low price point and could be widely available by early next month. The test kits are being purchased by the federal government, distributed to the states and then allocated through the state, Dr. Fitzgibbons said.
The final test she discussed was the antibody test, which examines a person’s immune system after an infection or at the very end of an infection. These tests are not used to diagnose someone who is sick, she said.
“We look forward to learning more about the antibody tests and if it means someone would be prevented from catching it again,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “If so, how long does that protection last? At this point we don’t have that information.”
The county Public Health Department will hold another press conference Friday to update the COVID-19 case numbers, as well as reveal if any additional schools have received approval to resume in-person instruction.