SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — At the end of the spring heading into the summer there was optimism that the worst of the pandemic was behind us.
In May, Santa Barbara County Public Health stated there were 315 new cases, a third of April’s 1,006. In June, nearly a third less again with 148 new cases. June’s numbers were a major improvement from January’s 10,216.
On June 15, California lifted most COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, businesses went back to 100% capacity and masks weren’t required indoors. There was the feeling of the old pre-pandemic normal with some new pandemic-time perks, like more outdoor dining.
However, in the days after the Fourth of July, the pandemic took a fourth turn. The more contagious Delta variant became the dominant strain among new COVID infections, and more than 150,000 eligible Santa Barbara County residents were not fully vaccinated.
Santa Barbara County Public Health officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said the surge was avoidable.
"The surge is completely preventable,” said Dr. Ansorg. “This is a completely preventable infection. The vaccine is so effective that if everybody would get the vaccine we wouldn't see any surges at all."
Through the end of July and August, vaccine rates continued to linger lower than any other previous month. Public Health officials said there are enough vaccines for everyone, they just need arms. September started with about 26% of eligible residents still without their first dose.
Dr. Ansorg pointed to the unvaccinated as to why Santa Barbara County’s new case rates spiked. In July there were almost ten times more cases than in June. Then August had almost triple July’s cases with 3,371.
If California still used the tiered system of reopening, Santa Barbara County would be in the most restrictive tier. August’s test positivity rates and case rates were as high as early February when California was in the deadliest third wave of the pandemic.
Most of Santa Barbara County’s new cases were in the north county. The north and central parts of Santa Barbara county have significantly lower vaccination rates. South county’s population is 63.1% fully vaccinated, central 47% and north 48.8%. And August’s new cases follow the unvaccinated trend. Santa Maria had the most new cases in August, 935. Then the Lompoc Vandenberg Village communities, 531. Santa Barbara was third, 527. But places like Orcutt, 340, Santa Ynez Valley, 178 and Goleta Valley/Gaviota 161, had about twice the new case rates as the city of Santa Barbara.
There is a little light at the end of the tunnel. Public Health numbers show the fourth wave may have started to decline. August 12 and 13 was the peak at 184 and 183 new cases. Despite Santa Barbara coming off of Fiesta a week earlier, north county out-paced south county both days.
But with both the Santa Maria Elks Rodeo and Angelenos expected to spend Labor Day Weekend in Santa Barbara, there’s cause for concern. September started with 176 new cases. And there are still 709 people in the county still infected.
Heading into Labor Day Weekend, Cottage Health's infectious disease specialist, Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons is worried. “The problem with going into this weekend is that within the last two days we’ve had 300 new cases diagnosed in Santa Barbara County.”
The latest uptick across the first three days of September is cause for concern. If Santa Barbara keeps its early September pace, the county will see 4,200 new cases. That's about 800 more than August.
“Schools reopened," said Dr. Fitzgibbons. "We went back to after-school activities and ultimately households were interacting with other households with more intensity than they had all summer.”
This increase is also concerning because of what's happening just northeast of us in the San Joaquin Valley. Hospitals have below 10% availability of intensive care beds.
Dr. Fitzgibbons said, “We were told by the state just in the last 48 hours that we should anticipate that the San Joaquin Region may, unfortunately, continue to deteriorate in such a way that many hospitals around the state should expect calls with transfer requests.”
But there is a way to get back to May and June numbers. Dr. Fitzgibbons points to masking in crowds, both indoors and outdoors, and getting the vaccine.
“Everything that we have been doing really since the indoor mask mandate went back into place about three weeks ago is clearly working. In fact, if you look about a week ago at our case rates we had started to plateau,” said Dr. Fitzgibbons.
To make an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine, visit MyTurn.ca.gov or call 2-1-1.