With COVID-19 case rates beginning to decrease again in Santa Barbara County, Public Health officials estimate that the county could advance to the moderate orange tier of the state’s tiered reopening framework as soon as April 20.

“We are very glad to be able to report that our case rates have started to decline again in Santa Barbara County,” Public Health Officer Henning Ansorg said at Friday’s county COVID-19 briefing. “If this trend continues, we anticipate to get into the orange tier likely in 10 days.”

The county’s seven-day average of new cases by episode date is 25, Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said, adding that this is “really, really good news and very welcomed news.”

In order to qualify for the orange tier, the county’s adjusted case rate must fall below six daily new cases per 100,000 people, or average fewer than 28 new cases per day, Do-Reynoso said. The county needs to meet the criteria for two consecutive weeks in order to officially advance.

Advancing to the orange tier means expanded indoor and outdoor capacity for restaurants and entertainment venues, Ansorg said.

Beginning next Thursday, new state guidelines for outdoor and indoor gatherings will go into effect. Outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people will be allowed under the red tier, and that number will increase to 50 in the orange tier. 

Additionally, private events or meetings can resume Thursday with certain modifications, including pre-purchased tickets, defined guest lists and assigned seating, according to Ansorg. Under the red tier, private outdoor events are limited to 50 people, and that capacity increases to 200 if all guests are tested or show proof of full vaccination, he added.

Indoor private events or meetings will be allowed under the red tier starting Thursday if all guests are tested or show proof of full vaccination, Ansorg said. The indoor capacity is limited to 100 people in the red tier and 200 people in the orange tier, he added.

Indoor live events or performances will be allowed to resume with capacity limitations depending on the tier status, according to Ansorg.

However, providing that the county’s virus immunity increases and hospitalizations remain stable or continue to trend downward, Ansorg said the county is well on its way to get beyond the tier system altogether by mid-June.

Virus variant tracking from UC Santa Barbara and Cottage Hospital shows that 42.4% of the 67 samples collected in March were of the West Coast strain of the virus, and 33.3% were of the United Kingdom strain, according to the county’s Community Data Dashboard.

“Fortunately, we do know that our vaccines work well against the locally circulating virus types,” Ansorg said.

In order for the county to reach “herd immunity,” where the virus cannot be easily spread widely, 85% of the county’s population would have to be immune to the virus, Ansorg said.

“The way to get out of this pandemic is by reaching a large percentage of the population to become immune to the virus, either by vaccination or through recovery from infection,” he said.

So far, about 45% of the county’s population of residents age 16 or older has had at least one shot, Ansorg said, adding that another 15% are “eagerly awaiting vaccination opportunity.”

Ansorg said the community needs to convince those are on the fence about getting vaccinated to “make up their mind and get the shot.”

“If you had your shot, please talk to your friends and neighbors about your experience with the vaccine,” he said. “Please encourage them to follow your example. Our vaccines are very safe, and adverse reactions are short-lived, quite manageable and well worth the protection we gain through the shot.”

To date, Public Health has used nearly 84% of the 222,910 vaccine doses received from the federal and state governments, according to Do-Reynoso. The remaining vaccines are committed to upcoming appointments, she added.

Public Health is estimating to deliver 9,930 vaccine doses into the arms of community members at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort mass vaccination clinic that opens Monday, according to Do-Reynoso. Of those, 7,530 will be first doses.

Beginning Thursday, Public Health will be utilizing mobile clinics in order to bring vaccines to the most vulnerable communities throughout the county, Do-Reynoso said. Three mobile clinic teams are based in Santa Maria, one team is based in Lompoc and one in Santa Barbara.

The clinics that are already scheduled focus primarily on H-2A housing, farmworkers and senior living communities, Do-Reynoso said.

Each mobile clinic has the capacity to vaccinate 100 to 200 people, she added. The clinics will be running until the end of July, but Do-Reynoso said she is hoping that the vulnerable populations in the county would already have been vaccinated at that point.

Public Health is also offering a Johnson & Johnson vaccine clinic at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria next Friday. Appointments for that clinic will be released Monday on the state’s new vaccine appointment system, MyTurn.

The Public Health Department is beginning a phased rollout of MyTurn, and all first-dose clinics moving forward will be released on the MyTurn portal, according to the county’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center.

Public Health officials reported 119 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, but about 65 of those cases were actually from January. The reporting was backlogged, and the delayed cases were related to reconciliation at the state level, Do-Reynoso said.

Because the additional cases were actually from January and are no longer considered infectious, they should not impact the county’s next tier assessment or bring case rates up, she added.

There are 161 cases still considered infectious throughout the county, which is the lowest daily active case number reported since Nov. 8, according to Noozhawk’s data tracking.

There were 169 COVID-19 hospitalizations reported in the county during the past seven days, which is a 19% decrease from the previous week, according to Noozhawk’s data tracking. There were 27 patients hospitalized by the virus in Santa Barbara County on Friday, including four in intensive-care units.

County hospitals are operating at a 40.3% ICU availability rate, according to Public Health.

No additional COVID-19 deaths were reported on Friday, and the county’s cumulative COVID-19 death toll remained at 441.

Of all the cases reported Friday, 76 were from the Santa Maria Valley and 18 were from the Lompoc Valley. Santa Barbara reported 10 new cases, the Montecito-Summerland-Carpinteria area and Isla Vista each logged four, the Santa Ynez Valley tallied two and the Goleta Valley reported one new case. Four cases were pending a geographic location.

Additionally, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department reported two new inmate cases on Friday. Both cases were detected during the intake process, according to Raquel Zick, sheriff’s public information officer.

One of the inmates since has been released, and the remaining inmate is being housed separately from the general population, Zick said. There have been 217 positive inmate cases at the Main Jail, and two remain active, according to Zick.

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at jmartinez-pogue@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.