Ansorg: Mask mandate isn’t necessary at this time
In recent weeks, Santa Barbara County has seen an increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations due to the BA.5 variant.
According to ca.gov (the state of California’s website), Santa Barbara County has a 16.1% positivity rate.
“It is slowly increasing. As of last week, we passed the threshold of 10 new admits (to hospitals) per 10,000 per day,” Dr. Henning Ansorg, the Santa Barbara County public health officer, told the News-Press Tuesday.
But the county is not considering reinstating the mask mandate at this time, Dr. Ansorg said.
“Assess your own risk,” Dr. Ansorg said. “How much do you want to avoid getting COVID? If you really want to avoid it, behave accordingly.
“We cannot rely on mandates so much because we want to reserve drastic measures for real emergencies about life and death,” he said. “We don’t want to over-utilize it when it’s not necessary.”
Dr. David Fisk, medical director of infection prevention and control for Cottage Health, told the News-Press the trend of increased hospitalizations “has probably been going on the last four to six weeks at Cottage, but on average slowly and steadily increasing, which is largely due to arrival and dominance of the BA.5.
“These admissions are due to COVID illness and needing additional support,” Dr. Fisk said. “However, some are incidental findings of COVID due to admission for a different reason. Admissions are impactful due to special precautions.
“That being said, admissions are increasing, but there is a smaller fraction requiring ICU care,” Dr. Fisk said.
Dr. Ansorg noted, “I’d like to say that we have gone through this for two and half years, and in the beginning it was really grim. In the beginning 10% ended up in the hospital.
“New variants are more transmissible but cause less severe infections,” Dr. Ansorg said. “Many people have some form of immunity, even partial immunity. The severity of illness has changed greatly.
“It doesn’t disrupt our lives quite as much. For the most part, people recover and get on with their lives,” said Dr. Ansorg.
The News-Press asked the medical professionals if people have become too apathetic too quickly about COVID-19.
“I think it does play a role. You can only be in emergency mode for a certain amount of time before you are tired of it,” Dr. Ansorg said. “Vaccinations give a false sense of security. Quiet mutations are able to bypass the immune system. They don’t leave a robust community behind. Immunity doesn’t last as long as it did before.”
Dr. Fisk said the question of complacency is an important one. “The one thing we cannot assume is that COVID over time, in the coming weeks and months, will become less dangerous. We don’t know what will happen.
“What we are seeing is reflective of community fatigue of dealing with COVID since it has gone on so long,” he said.
“COVID still poses a real and present risk to individuals in the region,” Dr. Fisk said. “We are at a time when most vulnerable members of the community are getting further and further out from their second booster, so immune protection from COVID is waning, leading to increased risk in the most vulnerable community members.
“While it can be a mild illness, it remains a life-threatening disease for many others. We do need to remain cognizant of individual risk,” Dr. Fisk said.
Dr. Ansorg recommended people wear a well-fitting mask, such as N-95 or KN95 mask, in indoor public settings. “Sharing indoor space is enough to catch a virus. Every one in 50 (people) to one in 30 is carrying the virus.
“You can also catch the virus in crowded outdoor spaces,” Dr. Ansorg said.
He also recommended people get vaccinated and boosted. “If you haven’t had your second booster, get it.
“For those who have tested positive, there is now medication,” he said. “Paxlovid is now available free of charge. Pharmacies can give it out without a prescription. Every doctor can prescribe it.
“It’s available and should be utilized,” Dr. Ansorg said.
Dr. Fisk said COVID-19 transmission is now at its highest point. “BA.5 variant is the most transient variant reaching our community. Most people know or know of people affected by COVID. It is absolutely rampant in the community at this time.”
Dr. Fisk said the number of positive cases is likely much higher than indicated by reported numbers. He said that’s because of people being tested at home or not getting tested at all.
“Some of the best models indicate nine actual cases for every reported case,” he said. “Numbers far exceed reported models.
“One of the clues is what the wastewater is detecting, and there is evidence that the amount of COVID in waste water is significantly higher than previously and has risen over the last week,” Dr. Fisk said.
“My feeling is that mask wearing is proven to be beneficial at reducing COVID in indoor settings, and it is a minimally invasive thing to ask people to do and something we should endorse at this time.”