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Coronavirus

Elementary school reopenings more likely even with ongoing COVID-19 tier and vaccine issues

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - There's been a "dramatic decrease" in the number of coronavirus cases compared to recent weeks, according to Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Dr. Van Do-Reynoso.

She presented the most current figures to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning. The decrease is 23 percent, which she said were "very encouraging numbers," but stressed there's more work to do.

Supervisor Gregg Hart called it remarkable and said he hopes the downward trend continues.

Hospitalizations are down 27% and Intensive Care Unit (ICU) rates are down 20%.

"This is what we had anticipated coming out of the winter holidays," said Do-Reynoso.

Deaths, however, have increased by 26%.

Vaccines

Vaccine distribution is at the forefront and about to change. A third-party administrator will be handling the allocation from the state after it has been received from the Federal Government. That process will be coordinated by Blue Shield of California likely within the month.

The health department says it will continue to serve the "safety net population," meaning the homeless population and those that are hard to reach like undocumented residents.

"We currently don't have enough vaccines at an allocation of just under 6,000 a week," said Do-Reynoso.

She noted that in other areas there are reports of residents 65 years and older getting a vaccine already. Ventura County opened vaccine appointments to those 65 and up this week. She also pointed out that teachers in Long Beach or food workers or ag workers in other areas are eligible for the vaccine.

This is based on the allocations per county and the number of community members who have declined.

To make sure the priority shots are given as planned Do-Reynoso said the priority remains protecting health care workers.

The Santa Barbara County demand for vaccines is higher than the demand. The county says it is ready to administer 15,000 a week.

For the aging population, the county says it has currently vaccinated 62% of the 75-year-olds and older.

The county has targeted the age group of 75-plus as a priority before lowering the age bar. If that population gets COVID-19, Do-Reynoso says, there could be "severe outcomes or even death."

Community members have asked if Santa Barbara has been receiving its fair share.

After an analysis, she said "we are getting our fair share of the vaccine. This is a tough space to be in." There are many counties in the same place of concern across the country where demand is exceeding the supply.

One of the goals this month is to finish up the second doses of community members.

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino was concerned about the county's ability to handle a large supply of the vaccine when it increases in the future.

The health department says it has planned to handle at least 15,000 community residents a week for vaccinations when the supply increases.

Battling Disinformation

There is also an ongoing effort to communicate with those who are worried about the vaccination. Vaccine hesitancy issues and identifying community barriers now is part of an outreach program so those issues are dealt with when the vaccine becomes available.

First District Supervisor Das Williams said he was upset at emails and media reports pointing to the health workers as "the scapegoats of the lack of vaccines."

We have the "places, locations, people and the process. They are ready to ramp up. What we don't have is enough vaccines," Williams said. Supply is a federal issue. "It's not like the county can go to these companies and order vaccines," he said.

Hart said the county has to be "determined and persuasive" when it comes to getting the message out to the public about the vaccine distribution, especially those with doubts.

"We are going to have to dispel some very atrocious myths going around on the internet," Hart said.

Reopening Schools

School reopening plans for the Buellton Unified School District and the Santa Barbara Unified School District were approved last Friday. Other districts are still getting a review. They include the Lompoc, Goleta, Vista del Mar and Orcutt school districts.

A slide presentation showed a statement that read: "There is increasing data to suggest that school can safely reopen," said Rochelle Walensky CDC Director adding that "safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely."

The health department is writing a letter in support of the Santa Barbara School district's reopening plan after studying other districts that have opened, problem free, with the coronavirus "raging" around the community.

A decision could mean a quick turnaround to call the students back to their classrooms.

Supervisor Williams was also concerned about the future of public education and the possibility of an increase in school dropouts.

Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said school openings will start at the elementary level, not the upper classes. He said having a high school with 1,500 kids is "a different cup of tea" than smaller groups at the K-5 levels.

Ansorg is especially concerned about getting the youngest kids back in the classrooms after they have spent months at home on Zoom classes with their parents coordinating the daily learning.

"I see those parents suffer a lot," he said.

Outdoor Dining and Churches

Winterization plans have also been a concern with more restaurants opening outside or in temporary structures. Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said there are rules limiting the time a tent structure can be up and the types of heaters that can be inside.

Office of Emergency Management Director Kelly Hubbard said fire agencies in the county are providing information to restaurants about heating components in tent structures.

Supervisor Joan Hartmann said throughout the better part of the last year, those coordinating the coronavirus response have been doing so in "unbelievably difficult conditions." She called called the effort heroic.

Health officials said under the Purple and Red tiers, churches can have indoor services with modifications up to 25% capacity and those in Yellow and Red can have 50% capacity.

Board Chairman Bob Nelson said he was excited to see churches reopening and see "those rights restored," based on a recent Supreme Court ruling.


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John Palminteri

John Palminteri is senior reporter for KEYT NewsChannel 3 and NewsChannel 12. To learn more about John, click here.

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