About 50% of COVID-19 infections in Santa Barbara County in recent weeks can be attributed to the Delta variant, according to the latest data from the county’s Public Health Department.
The news comes as the Delta variant gains traction statewide, accounting for about 43% of new cases in California as of the third week of June.
Dr. Van Do-Reynoso, the county’s public health director, told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the Delta variant’s increased presence is likely the reason the county has witnessed an uptick in cases in recent days.
“We are seeing a slight uptick in cases, especially in the past few days ranging from 36 on Saturday, 18 on Sunday and 20 on Monday,” Dr. Do-Reynoso told Supervisors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Delta variant is twice as infectious as the original strain of COVID-19, but the vaccines widely available in the United States offer strong protection against the strain.
This has proven true in California where there is currently a positivity rate of 0.6 per 100,000 among vaccinated people compared to a rate of 4.9 per 100,000 among the unvaccinated, according to data from the California Department of Public Health.
As the Delta variant gains a foothold in the county, Dr. Do-Reynoso said it remains critical for the county’s eligible population of 12 and older residents to get their vaccine.
“The key message that we are pushing out is vaccination,” Dr. Do-Reynoso said. “It remains critical for protection against infection, especially with circulating variants.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, both Dr. Do-Reynoso and Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s public health officer, reiterated the evidence of vaccine safety.
Despite the emergence of rare vaccine side effects, such as blood clots associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the rare heart inflammation tied to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, health officials say the effects of COVID-19 can be just as severe or worse than obtaining these rare side effects.
“There is a higher risk of getting heart inflammation due to COVID or due to other viruses than through the vaccine by far,” Dr. Ansorg said Tuesday.
Dr. Do-Reynoso reiterated this point, adding that many of the reports coming from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System — the national database tracking adverse reactions —are still under investigation and may not be entirely accurate.
“When we look at adverse events, first and foremost, anyone can report an adverse event to the national database,” Dr. Do-Reynoso said. “Much of (those reports) are unsubstantiated, and much of (those) reports are still being investigated.”
She added that much of the unconfirmed data in the VAERS database has been utilized in misinformation campaigns to dissuade people from getting their shot.
“When you look at that intentional misinformation, it is heartbreaking because you just have to look at the number of people who have died in our community, at the number of people who have been hospitalized in our community and at the number of people who have had the infection and are now suffering the long term effects,” Dr. Do-Reynoso said. “Those are very real in comparison to the rare side effects that could happen, and those rates are one in millions. It is really not a balanced conversation.”
The Board’s conversation on vaccine safety came on the same day that the Food and Drug Administration decided to attach a warning to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The new warning informs patients that getting the shot could lead to an increased risk of a rare neurological condition known as Guillain-Barré syndrome. This rare side effect has been identified in about 100 recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, 95% of which were hospitalized for the condition.
The reports, however, are preliminary and come on a backdrop of 12.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson shot administered nationwide. The new FDA warning has been added to informational sheets about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Multiple members of the Board of Supervisors also raised questions Tuesday about the state’s policy for masking in schools come September. Though children ages 12 and older are now eligible to receive a vaccine, CDPH has announced universal masking indoors will be in place for the fall, regardless of a student’s vaccination status.
Supervisor Das Williams and Chair Bob Nelson voiced concerns about the state’s current policy on masking in schools. Mr. Williams said it seems like a “double standard” that vaccinated adults can go to concerts, sporting events and group activities without a mask, but vaccinated students will still be required to wear masks at school.
In response, the public health officials told Supervisors that CDPH is still reviewing its guidance for schools and could potentially make major updates before students return to the classroom this fall.
On Tuesday, the Public Health Department reported 16 new cases of COVID-19 and no new deaths. Four new cases were reported in Santa Maria, three new cases were reported in Orcutt and two cases were reported in the unincorporated area of Goleta Valley and Gaviota.
Santa Barbara, Goleta, Lompoc and the north county unincorporated areas reported one new case. Three cases were pending on Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, 68% of the county’s eligible 12 and older population has received at least one vaccine dose, and 59.8% of that population is fully vaccinated. Of the entire county’s population, 50.6% of residents are fully vaccinated.