Grand Princess cruise ship
The Grand Princess cruise ship, seen here during a past visit to Santa Barbara, canceled its plans to visit the city on March 24. Santa Barbara officials are asking cruise lines to cancel their upcoming visits due to COVID-19-related travel advisories for cruise ships.  (John Palminteri / photo)

Princess Cruises told Santa Barbara on Monday that the Grand Princess cruise ship will not be coming to town on March 24 as scheduled, city spokeswoman Nina Johnson said in a statement. 

The Grand Princess cruise ship has multiple confirmed COVID-19 cases, and was diverted to Oakland, where it offloaded passengers on Monday. Some of the passengers will be quarantined at military facilities after they leave the ship, according to authorities and news reports. 

Santa Barbara is asking other cruise lines to cancel their upcoming visits to the city as well. 

“To protect the safety of residents, the city will contact other cruise lines to request cancellation of their upcoming cruise visits to Santa Barbara, until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention removes their travel advisory for cruise ships. There are ten cruise visits planned in Santa Barbara through June 2020,” the city said in a news release.  

The move comes as state and federal officials, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommend avoiding cruise ship travel due to COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus. 

Residents were concerned when the cruise ship Amadea, which had no reported cases, was anchored off Santa Barbara last week, and the Public Health Department said it would not allow the Grand Princess or other ships to visit if they had travelers aboard with COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus. 

Ongoing Planning Efforts for COVID-19 Response

Meanwhile, local health officials now say it’s a matter of time before COVID-19 has confirmed cases in Santa Barbara County.

Actions taken in other parts of the country – declarations of emergency, canceled public events, school closures – have not been implemented here, but Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said Santa Barbara County needs to start planning for social distancing.

“The discovery of community transmission (person-to-person spread of the virus) elsewhere in the state makes me feel that COVID-19 could arrive in our county at any time and we want to be prepared,” he said in a statement.

Businesses should determine which employees can work from home, medical facilities should communicate with patients by phone and video when possible, and extended care facilities for the elderly are asked to update plans for protecting residents from interacting with people outside their homes, he said.

“The cancelation of large, non-essential gatherings is a possibility down the line,” he said.

“Above all, people who are starting to feel ill or who are ill, should stay away from others and not go into crowded settings.”

As Public Health Officer, Ansorg has authority to declare a public health emergency, ban cruise ships from disembarking in the county, and order quarantines, but said Friday he has not taken any of those actions. 

The Public Health Department has a hotline with a recorded message at 805.681.4373 and an information page on the virus here.

Santa Barbara County Public Health and emergency management officials brief members of the media on response plans for novel coronavirus and COVID-19 on Friday.

Santa Barbara County Public Health and emergency management officials brief members of the media on response plans for novel coronavirus and COVID-19 on Friday.  (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara County plans to create a bilingual website specifically for COVID-19 information, but hadn’t as of Monday. 

Screening and Testing 

Coronaviruses typically cause mild or moderate respiratory illness in humans, but this novel coronavirus, which was first discovered in late 2019, can cause severe respiratory problems. It spreads by droplets, like the influenza virus, and has similar symptoms of fever, fatigue, cough, or shortness of breath.

Some people may have pneumonia or illness that is more serious, according to Public Health officials. 

While health officials initially screened cases while keeping travel in mind – whether the person visited an affected area or a person known to have COVID-19 – they don’t anymore.

Cottage Health’s medical director of infection control and prevention, Dr. David Fisk, said hospitals and other health care providers now consider screening and testing anyone with a fever and signs of pneumonia or other respiratory failure without an explanation.

“We have eliminated any travel criteria for considering people as possible patients of COVID-19,” Fisk said.

“This is a very rapidly spreading outbreak and in my opinion … it’s moving into the realm of a pandemic,” he said last week.

Cottage Health is “working feverishly” to create procedures to identify and screen possible COVID-19 patients before they enter any buildings, such as meeting them out in the parking lot, putting a mask on them, and putting them into protective isolation.

Anyone experiencing symptoms who thinks they may be ill with COVID-19 is asked to call their health care provider before seeking care.

For the Cottage Health emergency departments, people with symptoms are asked to call ahead, at 805.569.7878, so medical staff can safely process them, he said. 

The Cottage Health recorded information line is available at 805.324.9019. 

While Fisk said Cottage Health facilities have a reserve supply of protective masks for medical staff members, there are “looming shortages” of protective equipment and they are working with vendors to order more.

“Right now our supply of these protective masks for Cottage health care workers is anticipated to be many months’ worth of these masks. That obviously depends on our rates of usage and how widespread it becomes,” he said.

All testing in the United States was done through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until March 27, when they sent testing kits to California and other areas, according to Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg.

Testing for COVID-19 has been very limited in the United States, with hopes the capacity will expand this week, he said. 

Public Health advises health care providers to test seriously ill people first, and they don’t encourage people to get tested out of curiosity, Ansorg said. 

He noted that last week, California went from having about 1,000 kits available to having about 10,000 kits a day by Friday. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state emergency this week and ordered health insurance companies to “immediately reduce cost-sharing (including, but not limited to, co-pays, deductibles, or coinsurance) to zero for all medically necessary screening and testing for COVID-19, including hospital, emergency department, urgent care, and provider office visits where the purpose of the visit is to be screened and/or tested for COVID-19.”

The statement does not say the same for any necessary treatment costs, including hospitalization.

The state’s emergency declaration makes more resources available, including mutual aid and funding, said Kelly Hubbard, the director of the county Office of Emergency Management.

The declaration also makes price gouging illegal for housing, gas, food and essential supplies, according to Newsom’s office, and complaints can be filed online and by calling 800.952.5225.

Hubbard said the county may activate its Call Center in the Emergency Operations Center if necessary, as it does during wildfires and other major responses. 

Local schools are open as usual, but Santa Barbara City College students are “strongly advised against international travel during spring break.”

The college is also canceling its study abroad program in Florence, Italy, and will “work with partners to facilitate the safe and timely return of all students and faculty.” 

UC Santa Barbara is operating normally

“The campus has a pandemic response team and a planning process in place to adapt to the situation as it evolves,” campus staff said in a statement.

How to Prevent the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus and COVID-19

County Public Health officials advise people to frequently wash their hands with soap and water; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; avoid close contact with people who are sick; and stay away from work, school, and other people if you become sick with respiratory symptoms like fever and cough.

They also recommend that people get a flu immunization to prevent influenza if they have not received one yet this season.

“This is a time when it’s more important than ever to get the flu vaccine,” Fisk said, adding that it can protect people from dying of the flu and lessens the chance of getting the flu.

“You don’t want to come down with serious respiratory illness right now,” he added. 

“People should continue to practice the same habits to prevent themselves from getting the flu. They should wash their hands frequently, elbow or fist bump one another instead of shaking hands or hugging, sneeze or cough into the crook of their elbow and maintain a 6-foot or greater distance between themselves and anyone who looks ill,” the Public Health Department said.

“Wearing a surgical face mask is necessary for those who are ill and going out in public, such as going to the doctor’s office. Health care workers interacting with patients should wear an N95 mask.”

Answers to frequently-asked questions about COVID-19 are available on the Public Health Department website in English here and in Spanish here.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommendations to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases including: 

» Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

» Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

» Stay home when you are sick.

» Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

» Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

» CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19. Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to  others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).

» Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. 

» If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

» Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

The State Department has travel advisories and country-specific information online, including a color-coded map.

The CDC has travel information available as well, and advises people to avoid nonessential travel to China, Iran, South Korea and Italy, and recommends older adults or people with chronic medical conditions consider postponing travel to Japan. 

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.