San Luis Obispo County notified of first confirmed case
Santa Barbara County is ensnared in a delta-variant wave and reportedly bound for another attack as the omicron variant spreads across the country.
Public health experts told the News-Press on Friday they believe the omicron variant is already in the county. The same day, neighboring San Luis Obispo County received notification of its first confirmed omicron case.
“This is a very high-risk period of the pandemic for all of us,” Dr. David Fisk, an infectious disease specialist with Cottage Health and Sansum Clinic, said. “Short-term, the most important thing we can do is try not to meet omicron with COVID fatigue right now.”
The county’s daily case rate Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving, was 9.5 cases per 100,000 people. On Dec. 3, the rate had steadily climbed to 15.8 cases per 100,000 people.
Dr. Fisk attributes the rise to Thanksgiving celebrations and a seasonal surge.
“Ever since Thanksgiving, there’s been more people coming in our doors symptomatic,” Dr. Marjorie Newman, the Sansum Clinic medical director, said. “Definitely, case rates are increasing. And we’re all concerned about people gathering again.”
Health officials in 40 states and Puerto Rico have detected the omicron variant, as of Thursday afternoon. The number is rapidly growing, much like New York City’s test-positivity rate, which doubled in three days.
Dr. Hennings Ansorg, the Santa Barbara County public health officer, is preparing for omicron to become the dominant variant after watching the variant overtake South Africa’s cases.
But he said there’s much that experts don’t know yet.
“We do not know with any degree of certainty if omicron is more or less aggressive than delta,” Dr. Fisk said. “But it’s clear that there’s going to be a lot of cases, and when there’s a lot of cases, some of them are not going to go well.”
After preliminary data showed mild reactions in omicron cases — primarily in young, vaccinated individuals — some hoped the latest mutation would be akin to a cold. But experts throughout the country are warning against premature conclusions.
The omicron variant has 50 mutations that distinguish it from the spike protein of the delta variant. The mutations help to transmit it from host to host, but it’s still COVID-19, Dr. Newman said.
Scientists think the variant mutated as it lingered in an immunocompromised person, she added.
Dr. Fisk said the mutations allow the omicron variant to divert some defenses. The spike protein’s shape, so heavily mutated, is less recognizable to the immune systems of those who have previously recovered from COVID-19.
The monoclonal antibody treatments given to those with mild to moderate COVID-19 don’t stick to the shape of the omicron variant like it did other variants. The treatments need to adhere to the protein to inhibit the spikes from infecting the cells.
And Dr. Fisk, as well as Dr. Newman and Dr. Ansorg, said the booster shots are imperative to protection against the new variant.
Dr. Newman said to use “the tools currently in our shed,” referring to vaccination, masking, social distancing, teleworking and frequent testing. She recommends three-ply masks with a good seal around the nose and mouth.
The experts repeated these mitigation methods — especially important as they anticipate a holiday surge. All recommended testing before and after travel and before any gatherings.
A COVID-19-infected individual may not receive a positive test result until a few days after exposure, so Dr. Newman recommends retesting 3-5 days after returning from any holiday trips.
“I strongly recommend that anyone with cold-like symptoms not meet with others because you can unknowingly spread COVID-19,” Dr. Ansorg said. He suggests cutting out unnecessary travel while also balancing mental health.
Currently, Santa Barbara County intensive care units are treating 13 patients with COVID-19, and 65 ICU beds total are in use of the county’s 76 total ICU beds. Dr. Ansorg said ICU admissions are higher this time of year without COVID-19, so he can only hope the surge brings few cases into a hard-pressed healthcare system.
Last week, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department announced the closure of two free COVID-19 testing locations. The American Medical Response Central Training Center in Buellton closed last Thursday, and the Goleta Valley Community Center location will close Dec. 30. The other four Public Health sites will remain open.
Dr. Ansorg said the test sites were not being used as much, and grant funding was expiring.
Dr. Fisk said he would like to see more funding for Public Health.
“Public Health is already playing a very important role in the community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they are stretched extraordinarily thin due to the need for more public health funding in our community,” he said.
Tests from Santa Barbara County have been sent off to test for the omicron variant. It is undetermined when results will be reported.