Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, chair of the infectious disease division at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, provided the community with an update on the state of COVID-19 in the region during a virtual meeting Thursday evening.
Much of Thursday’s conversation centered on the impact of COVID-19 on children. Statewide data shows that cases among kids and teens as old as 17 are increasing in California, and have been on the rise since April of last year, Dr. Fitzgibbons said. She added that in large part, this increase can be tied to widespread vaccine coverage among the older population.
Despite this rise among teens and adolescents, Dr. Fitzgibbons ensured that the cases among the adolescent population are frequently mild, and often, children experience the same symptoms as adults who contract a less severe case of COVID-19.
“What’s interesting with kids and adults is they are probably more likely to have milder or slightly different, maybe allergic type symptoms even, you know, just simply a runny nose,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “The good news, again, is that most children are recovering within one or two weeks, and it’s really uncommon for kids to have symptoms beyond eight weeks, but not unheard of.”
Among the children who do get infected with COVID-19, Dr. Fitzgibbons said that hospitalization is rare, citing studies that say the rate is around 2%. Those most likely to contract severe disease are children who are immunocompromised, have complicated medical histories, have a higher BMI or have asthma, she said.
Nationwide, hospitals have charted an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations among children in recent weeks, which has prompted concerns among some locals about the threat of COVID-19 to their own children. Dr. Fitgibbons addressed these concerns during Thursday’s meeting, ensuring parents that Cottage Hospitals across the county are prepared to treat children infected with COVID-19, though the risk of hospitalization remains low.
“Here in Santa Barbara, we’re very fortunate that we have a great children’s hospital here within Cottage Hospital with a lot of capacity, with a lot of excellent local expertise,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “We’ve had pediatric cases actually throughout the pandemic. We have continued to care for children who have come in with severe COVID-19, both ICU level-care and unfortunately, sometimes as well as on the general floor, and we’ve been able to do that safely and have good outcomes.”
“We have the capacity and the expertise, but it’s something that we’re watching very, very carefully.”
In addition to a discussion on COVID-19 among children, Dr. Fitzgibbons also took stock of the Delta variant’s impact and prevalence in Santa Barbara County during Thursday’s meeting, overviewing a timeline of the variant’s spread from India to the U.S.
According to data charted by health officials across the world, the variant gained traction in India in the spring before spreading to the U.K. a few months later. The variant then gained a foothold in the U.S. in late June, causing increased case rates nationwide.
At this point, the Delta variant has become the most prevalent variant in the United States, and accounts for between 90% to 100% of new cases in the U.S., Dr. Fitzgibbons shared. This is largely due to the virus’ increased transmissibility, which studies estimate can spread from one person to about seven others, Dr. Fitzgibbons said. This is higher than the original COVID-19 strain, which experts believe could spread from one patient to three others.
“Delta is doing something that is giving it an advantage over all other variants, and it’s replacing them,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said.
As a result of the delta variant, the county is witnessing a surge in cases and uptick in hospitalizations once again, Dr. Fitzgibbons noted. She later added, however, that of those being hospitalized with severe COVID-19 illness, about 90% on average are unvaccinated people.
“These vaccines are working to do what they were designed to do — they are preventing severe disease and death,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “All three vaccines currently available to us have done that beautifully, and they continue to do again what they were designed to do.”
Dr. Fitzgibbons shared data charted by Cottage Health’s Senior Vice President of Finance and Chief Financial Officer Brett Tande on Thursday, which revealed that during the Winter surge in cases, hospitalizations and case rates were closely correlated. Therefore, when cases were high, hospitalizations were also high.
This same correlation, however, has not yet been charted with the surge of delta in the county. According to data collected thus far, despite high case rates, hospitalizations at Cottage Hospitals specifically have not spiked as high as the previous Winter surge.
Dr. Fitzgibbons said there could be many explanations for this — perhaps more cases are occurring among adolescents that are less likely to be hospitalized or people experiencing breakthrough infections are less likely to be hospitalized. However, she added that the graphic does give her hope that perhaps the delta variant will not strain the hospital as badly as previous surges.
“As much as, you know, I think we’re ready for whatever the surge throws out at us, I’m optimistic that, at least this early data is promising, that we’re perhaps less likely to hit quite so hard,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said.