Steven DeLira, deputy executive director of the nonprofit human service organization Family Service Agency.
Steven DeLira, deputy executive director of the nonprofit human service organization Family Service Agency, said Tuesday he believes that “cultural values” and dedication to family often lead to official guidance not being followed in the Santa Maria Valley during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Local public health officials have struggled to explain why the Santa Maria Valley has been the region of Santa Barbara County by far the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, on Tuesday, the deputy executive director of the nonprofit human service organization Family Service Agency provided insight into why that area has accounted for roughly two-thirds of the county’s community (nonprison) cases.

“When grandma comes to visit from another state or for Mother’s Day or even high school graduation, and the families decide to come together for a celebration — often when we say there shouldn’t be a social gathering of this size of a group or for this long of a period — we are told, ‘We weren’t raised that way,’” Steven DeLira said during Tuesday’s COVID-19 press briefing. “I have been told, ‘We weren’t raised that way.’”

Of the county’s 5,124 confirmed COVID-19 cases — including more than 1,000 at the Lompoc Federal Prison Complex — 2,627 have been in the Santa Maria Valley.

“This sense of cultural values being stronger than COVID-19 that’s going on seems to contribute to a higher number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Santa Maria and Lompoc area, from my perspective” DeLira said.

DeLira’s comments came on a day when the county reported 135 new COVID-19 cases, with nearly half in Santa Maria proper.

He said another contributing factor that the Family Service Agency is addressing is family members risking infection by taking care of their loved ones.

Fearing the spread of coronavirus to families, the organization will offer to help isolate someone who is sick from healthy family members, something that often does not go over well.

“If a family member tests positive for COVID-19 and starts to show some symptoms, we may recommend they put that family member in a hotel to isolate them from the family,” DeLira said. “The receiver is sometimes offended because the recommendation implies they can’t take care of their loved ones, and that’s offensive.” 

The Family Service Agency does not mean to offend, DeLira said, adding that “this was only an offer to help through this period of time in your life to be able to isolate your loved one away from the family, so the virus does not spread.” 

He continued: “They generally will accept our apology, work with us, and decline the service.” 

Nick Clay, director of the Santa Barbara County Emergency Medical Services Agency.

Nick Clay, director of the Santa Barbara County Emergency Medical Services Agency, said Tuesday that COVID-19 tests locally will be available only to a small, targeted population. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Multiple families living in a single-family home is another problematic area, DeLira said. He described families sharing a living space with up to 20 people.

“When somebody tests positive for COVID-19, and we ask for them to go back and advise the other family members in the house, they are fearful,” DeLira said. “The fear that they have is they will be evicted or they will be thrown out of the house.”

The Family Service Agency provides services in Santa Maria, Lompoc, Guadalupe and Santa Barbara.

Speaking with Noozhawk after Tuesday’s briefing, DeLira said, “It seems the rate of positive COVID-19 is significantly higher in the North (County)” and mentioned strong family ties.

“I think part of that has to do with cultural differences, and how we were raised, and how we respond to this,” he continued. “Your family is first, and if it means you are risking your life, and you are risking your life because that is how you were raised … but that’s not how we were raised during a pandemic because that is now.”

Established in 1899, the Family Service Agency works to improve the health and well-being of the community’s most vulnerable children, families and seniors by ensuring access to food, shelter and other basic needs, as well as providing youth mentoring, case management, advocacy and mental health programs, according to the organization.

The organization’s site also offers community resources during the pandemic, including financial assistance, food resources, mental health counseling, information for seniors, housing and transportation, child care, legal resources and more. 

The county Public Health Department reported 295 active COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.

The bulk of Tuesday’s new cases — 66 — were in Santa Maria, and the city reported a total of 136 active cases. Other parts of the Santa Maria Valley, including Orcutt and unincorporated areas, accounted for 13 new cases.

The Lompoc area and the Santa Ynez Valley totaled 16 new cases.

Santa Barbara added 19 cases, the unincorporated area of the South Coast, which includes Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria, had four, the unincorporated Goleta area had two, Goleta added three and Isla Vista added three. Geographic locations were pending on eight cases.

One new COVID-19 case was from the Lompoc federal correctional complex.

The county reported a total case count of 5,124, including inmate cases from the federal prison complex in Lompoc. Of the county’s total cases reported, 94 percent have fully recovered.

No new COVID-19 deaths were reported Tuesday, with the county’s total remaining at 32.

As of Tuesday, 82 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms, including 26 in intensive care units.

County Public Health officials are “concerned, but not alarmed” about the hospitalization numbers, said Nick Clay, director of the county Emergency Medical Services Agency.

Out of the 66,107 tests administered in the county, 5,124 were positive as of Tuesday.

In response to the impact at community COVID-19 testing sites, Public Health has developed a plan for people who need a test to get the “rapid opportunity to get tested,” Clay said.

“These testing sites will not be available to the general public, and only available to a small, targeted population,” Clay said.

The county Public Health Department will follow the state’s Tier 1 and Tier 2 coronavirus testing priorities, he added.

“This includes close contacts with confirmed cases, which will be referred by the Public Health Department for testing or those who fall into these high-risk groups — live or work in a high-risk congregate living facility … work in a health care sector … public safety and first responders.”

Registration details will be released in the next week, Clay said.

“All who register will be asked to validate their place of employment to ensure we adhere to the state’s guidelines,” he said.

Officials ask people to cancel a scheduled appointment for COVID-19 testing if they are not able to make it.

 New cases reported July 21Active cases by regionTotal cases reported to date
Montecito, Summerland, Carpinteria412100
Santa Barbara and Mission Canyon1936611
Isla Vista3234
Western Goleta Valley and Gaviota21286
Santa Ynez Valley4758
Lompoc, Vandenberg Village, Mission Hills1233333
Lompoc federal correctional complex161,010
Santa Maria661362,265
Guadalupe, New Cuyama, Garey, Casmalia, Sisquoc720205
Santa Barbara County total 1352955,124

Click here to read the county Public Health  Department’s information on coronavirus and COVID- 19

 Click here for Noozhawk’s Coronavirus section.

Click here for more information about Family Service Agency.

 — Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.