[Editor’s note: Noozhawk’s weekly COVID-19 email newsletter is delivered to subscribers on Wednesdays. You can sign up here. We are republishing the newsletters on the website so more readers have access to them.]
Welcome to Noozhawk’s Weekly COVID-19 Briefing.
I’m Jade Martinez-Pogue, a Noozhawk staff writer.
With the spread of the Omicron variant and the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases countywide, this newsletter is a way for Noozhawk readers to get all of the important updates in one place.
It’s emailed out every Wednesday, for free, to everyone who subscribes.
Here’s What We Know
» The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department reported a record-breaking number of daily COVID-19 cases two days in a row last week, and that record was broken again for a third time on Saturday with 1,325 new positive cases. The number of people who have tested positive and are still infectious also hit a pandemic high on Tuesday with 6,892 active cases.
» As of Tuesday, 17.8% of the county’s 59,717 cumulative positive cases have been reported in the last two weeks. Public health officials attribute the surge to the Omicron variant.
» The month-long COVID-19 outbreak at the Santa Barbara County Main Jail has infected 208 inmates, including one person who had to be hospitalized, according to Sheriff Bill Brown. The Sheriff’s Department plans to move some people from the Main Jail to the new Northern Branch Jail this weekend to better manage the outbreak, he said.
» The Santa Barbara Unified School District began testing all students and staff for the coronavirus this week. The district started classes last Monday, after winter break, and reported about 1,900 students and 250 staff were absent each day last week. The district also suspended all extracurricular sports and events until further notice.
» A UC Santa Barbara graduate student developed a new rapid test that can detect the Omicron variant. Zach Aralis started working on the test over the holiday break, and within a few weeks designed a test from scratch that can pick up key features that only Omicron has, according to UCSB.
» Starting Saturday, private health-care insurers will be required to cover at-home COVID-19 tests, President Joe Biden’s administration announced Monday. Insurance companies must reimburse up to eight at-home tests per month per person, according to the White House.
» The California Department of Public Health on Saturday updated guidance for hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, saying that health-care personnel who test positive for COVID-19 may return to work without isolation or further testing if they do not have symptoms. The guidance is aligned with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s latest health care worker isolation and quarantine guidance, and is in place in California until Feb. 1.
» The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum announced that it would be closing for two weeks due to the rise of cases in Santa Barbara County. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History also temporarily closed through Jan. 21.
Increased COVID-19 Testing Demand
The Santa Barbara County-run testing site at Direct Relief, 6100 Wallace Becknell Road in Goleta, can test about 265 people a day. All tests at this site are free. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)
As COVID-19 cases continue to soar in Santa Barbara County, so has the demand for coronavirus testing.
At-home rapid tests, also known as antigen tests, are selling out at pharmacies and stores, and people talk of waiting in line for hours at urgent care clinics or local testing sites.
About 53,600 test results were reported in the week ending Tuesday, compared to about roughly 27,000 tests the previous week, according to Noozhawk’s data tracking.
Medical professionals and Public Health Department officials urge people who test positive with an at-home test to take that as a confirmation they have COVID-19 and not seek out additional confirmation with a PCR test.
“If you are symptomatic during this surge and have a positive antigen test, you do not need a confirmatory PCR — in fact, a confirmatory PCR could potentially impact access for others who need it,” said Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, an infectious disease specialist at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
People who cannot find testing appointments or at-home tests are turning up at hospital emergency rooms for COVID-19 tests, Fitzgibbons said, adding that the hospitals then must turn away anyone who is not there for emergency medical care.
The five public health-care centers in the county will be receiving 80,000 at-home testing kits weekly, with distribution anticipated to start early next week, according to Public Health Department director Van Do-Reynoso.
The county is also expanding hours at its free testing centers and plans to add another site in the Goleta/Santa Barbara area soon, after closing the Goleta Valley Community Center site in December, she said.
Appointments at county-run testing sites can be booked through the publichealthsbc.org/testing website. The sites at Direct Relief, 6100 Wallace Becknell Road in Goleta, and Santa Maria Fairpark, 937 S. Thornburg St., and also take walk-ins, according to the county.
While the increase in testing could be linked to the increase in new cases, the county’s testing positivity rate is also increasing, meaning that a higher percentage of people getting tested are reporting a positive result.
As of Jan. 7, the county’s testing positivity rate was 17.5%, compared to roughly two weeks ago when the positivity rate was hovering around 10%, according to the county’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard.
The Public Health Department does not collect or report results from the at-home antigen tests, so the reported numbers are likely undercounted compared to active cases in the community.
Current Surge Details
While hospitals are seeing record-breaking numbers of new COVID-19 diagnoses in the early days of the new year, patients are overall less sick than they have been during previous surges, according to Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons.
At Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, the emergency department and inpatient staff are using ventilators on fewer patients and seeing “less advanced disease by the time people show up,” she said.
While there are several factors to explain this trend, Fitzgibbons said that the “excellent protection” that the community has from the vaccines, and how many people have been boosted, is providing a lot more protection against severe disease if people do fall ill.
The hospital measures the ratio of people hospitalized for COVID-19 for the number of community cases, “and that ratio is a bit better than during past surges,” Fitzgibbons said. “In other words, it’s early in the surge, but at this stage, we are seeing fewer hospitalizations for every 100 community cases.”
Even if the Omicron variant is milder than previous variants and fewer people are likely to have severe disease, the sheer number of infections could create “a tremendous strain on schools, hospitals and other critical infrastructure sectors,” Fitzgibbons said.
Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s public health officer, said Tuesday that even if there is a small percentage of infected people ending up in the hospital, that number multiplied by a large number of infections results in a strain on hospitals.
The average daily number of coronavirus-positive people in local hospitals was 320% higher for the week ending Tuesday compared to last week, and the number of COVID-19 intensive-care unit admissions was more than 480% higher, according to Noozhawk’s data tracking.
While the next few weeks are going to be hard, Fitzgibbons said, “we really do have a lot of indication this surge will hit hard and fast, and then subside quicker than prior surges.”
The Public Health Department shared hospitalization, ICU and death forecasts for Santa Barbara County from the state on Tuesday, revealing that all three figures could show steep increases in coming months.
Public Health Department director Van Do-Reynoso did note that the projections are “very rough” and show the worst-case scenario, but that they give some indication for planning efforts.
COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker
Nearly 70% of all eligible Santa Barbara County residents — those over age 5 — are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and just over 65% of the entire county’s population was fully vaccinated, according to the county’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard.
The county reports administering more than 720,900 doses of the vaccine, including more than 304,450 first doses, around 268,600 second doses, more than 27,000 single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and nearly 112,200 booster shots.
At-Home Rapid Testing
What do I do if I test positive with an at-home, rapid COVID-19 test?
At-home, rapid COVID-19 tests have become a convenient way for people to determine if they’ve been infected with the coronavirus — if they can find any of the tests.
While the Public Health Department does not collect or report at-home test results, medical professionals and public health officials urge people who test positive with an at-home test to take that as confirmation that they have been infected.
The Public Health Department has isolation and quarantine guidance for people who test positive, which includes staying home for at least five days, monitoring symptoms and informing close contacts.
Starting Saturday, health-care insurers will be required to cover up to eight at-home COVID-19 tests per month per person. People should be able to either receive free testing kits under their insurance or submit receipts for reimbursement of the tests, according to Biden administration officials.
Getting a PCR test is recommended for people who have coronavirus-like symptoms and cannot take an at-home test, or have a negative result from an at-home test.
Readers have sent us dozens of questions about COVID-19, vaccination, business reopening rules, in-person school, and other pandemic-related issues. Please send yours to [email protected] and we’ll try to include them in future newsletters and Noozhawk Q&As.
Watch the County COVID-19 Briefing
The Jan. 11 Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors briefing includes updates from Public Health Department director Van Do-Reynoso.
» Find a COVID-19 vaccine provider near you on the Vaccine Finder search function of https://www.vaccines.gov/search/. You can search for providers by location and by specific vaccine available (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson). You can also find providers on the county website, publichealthsbc.org/vaccine, or at myturn.ca.gov. Some facilities offer walk-ups as well as appointments.
» Text your ZIP code to GETVAX (438829) for a list of vaccine providers in English, or text your ZIP code to VACUNA (822862) for a list in Spanish.
» Find more local pandemic-related information on the Public Health Department website and the county’s COVID-19 recovery page, with resources for business reopening, rental assistance, food assistance and more.
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