Closures, contact tracing, face coverings and low-versus-high-risk activities: These are some of the coronavirus-related issues that readers have been asking about over the past several months.
Questions and suggestions from Noozhawk readers have helped guide pandemic-related coverage, and this is a roundup of some frequently-asked questions about Santa Barbara County’s public health response.
That story explains what numbers are important to understanding whether the novel coronavirus is spreading more or less in the community, and what needs to happen to reduce the spread, and lessen restrictions.
There have been ongoing delays in processing testing results, and the county and state have experienced delays and errors in data reporting, causing the county to add 28 deaths on Friday that occurred in April, June and July.
On top of that, “the state’s electronic disease reporting system has been experiencing issues processing incoming reports,” Public Health officials said. “Therefore, recent data published on the SB County Public Health COVID-19 dashboards are likely to be an underestimate of true cases in the county.”
Q: Has the Public Health Department considered issuing different orders/restrictions for different regions of the county, since there are many more cases reported in the North County versus South County?
Several Noozhawk readers have written in with this question, after months of data showing a higher number of positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the Santa Maria Valley compared to the rest of the county.
The short answer is no, said Jackie Ruiz, public information officer for the county Public Health Department.
“This question on restrictions is brought up continuously, but it’s not something we considered just because we’re a county that’s constantly moving, we have so much travel between one region and the next,” she said.
There are thousands of daily commuters within the county and between Santa Barbara County and neighboring San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, and the Central Coast in general is a popular tourist destination.
The county Public Health Officer orders are online here, and they include statewide public health guidelines for businesses.
The county separates novel coronavirus cases (people with a positive test result) by geographic area, and that signifies where the person lives, but not necessarily where they were infected or where they work.
As of Tuesday, Santa Barbara County reported 64 deaths, 227 active cases (people who are still infectious) and 6,526 total novel coronavirus cases.
About 37 percent of the county’s known cases (positive test results) investigated by contact tracers outside the Lompoc federal correctional complex are from an unknown source, “community transmission,” according to the Public Health Department. The “close contact transmission” cases have been tracked to a known positive case.
Q: Have local residents generally been cooperative with contact tracing investigators?
The contact tracing process involves talking to people who tested positive to find out who they have had recent close contact with (friends, family members, coworkers, strangers) to identify people who were potentially exposed while they were infectious with the novel coronavirus.
“The latest update I have from the disease control team is that 94 percent of positive cases that we’ve tried to contact have responded,” Ruiz said last week.
It can be challenging to contact people if phone numbers are incorrect, or if people list a post office box as their address when getting tested, she noted.
“I know from speaking to contact tracers that many times the nurse investigator will call and the person knows exactly who they got it from, while others are completely stumped,” Ruiz said. “They have one of those two reactions when contacted by us, so that may offer a bit of insight into this. The breakdown is pretty well split between those.”
It’s difficult to impossible to find a specific source if someone has been in many crowded locations recently, especially with strangers, she said.
“If you get it at the bar, or a grocery store, how would you actually know who you encountered?” Ruiz said.
Family gatherings and workplaces are “constantly on the list” of transmission sources for recent cases, she added.
Q: Why are congregate living facilities so vulnerable to novel coronavirus outbreaks?
People living in congregate living facilities — such as skilled nursing homes, assisted living, shelters, dormitories, jails and prisons, and H2A farmworker housing — are in close proximity, dining together, and spending a lot of their time together, which creates an environment that makes it easier for the novel coronavirus to spread, Ruiz said.
Residents in that kind of housing often cannot social distance, she added.
Paige Batson, deputy director of community health for the Public Health Department, said the novel coronavirus is “catastrophic when it enters these facilities.”
For that reason, there are precautions in place to avoid cases in the first place, and protocols for widespread, weekly testing if there is a case, she told the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors at a July 14 meeting.
“We consider one case to be an outbreak, only because of the risk of transmission,” she said.
“What we’re often finding is that administration may know about all pieces to be done, but sometimes it doesn’t reach the residents, it doesn’t reach the frontline staff,” Batson said.
Some people still don’t recognize the symptoms of COVID-19, or don’t report them as required, she said.
Every skilled nursing facility in the county has reported at least one case among a resident and/or healthcare worker, and the devastating outbreak at the Country Oaks Care Center in Santa Maria killed 11 residents and infected 28 healthcare workers.
There are ongoing outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in the Lompoc federal correctional complex, where at least three inmates have died of COVID-19, the County Main Jail in Santa Barbara, and the Santa Maria Juvenile Hall.
Active cases among residents and staff members at skilled nursing facilities are reported to the state and listed on the county’s Reopening Metrics website here.
Q: Why are face coverings/face masks helpful, for the wearer and others?
Wearing face coverings protects people around you from your respiratory droplets, and provides some protection for the wearer as well, said Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg.
“Of all the things you can do right now to protect yourself and others from getting the novel coronavirus, wearing a face covering properly tops the list,” he wrote in an informational article for the Public Health Department.
“An infectious person expels infectious particles while sneezing, talking, laughing, yelling, coughing or singing. An infectious person can even spread infectious particles just by breathing.
“The louder you talk, the more droplets you spread to others. Coughing emits more infectious particles than talking, and sneezing is even worse. Since many people with COVID-19 never show symptoms, many people are infected that may not know it. Wearing a mask limits the spread of potentially infectious particles.
“Wearing a face covering does not just help others — it limits your own exposure, too.
“According to a study in Hong Kong, wearing a mask in public was effective for the SARS coronavirus (a virus very similar to the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19). The study found that people who frequently wore a mask in public were half as likely to be infected.”
People without symptoms, known as asymptomatic, can be infectious, according to the Public Health Department.
“Studies have shown that people can be contagious in the first several days of having the virus, before they show symptoms,” Ansorg wrote.
Testing has become limited again — to people who have symptoms or know they were exposed to someone with COVID-19 — so it’s likely that some people who are infected and don’t know it, because they do not get sick or have mild symptoms, will not get tested and will not be included in the total case counts.
“We know for a fact that there are people who are not lab tested and are not identified who are infectious,” Ruiz said. “It’s that unknown number that’s kind of scary.”
Q: What are the relative risks of different activities?
Public health officials encourage people to stay home as much as possible, but when people do go out, there are ways to limit the risk of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus.
The main one is limiting face-to-face contact with other people, which reducing time around others who are not part of their household, avoiding gatherings, wearing face coverings and socially distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from others.
Dr. Henning Ansorg, the public health officer for the county, has repeatedly suggested people take activities outdoors whenever possible, and limit the amount of time and number of people.
Well-known Southern Californian seismologist Lucy Jones put it a simple way: “Don’t share your air.”
Santa Barbara County’s Public Health Department has assessed the relative exposure risk of different activities, from low risk (walking your dog) to high risk (hosting a sleepover).
“We want to empower people to make good decisions,” Ruiz said.
“In addition to everyday steps to prevent COVID-19, keeping space between you and others is one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to this virus and slowing its spread locally and across the country and world,” the Public Health Department says.
Lowest risk activities:
» Exercise at home
» Walk your dog
» Go for a walk or hike, maintaining 6 feet of distance between yourself and others
» Yard work
» Play in your yard
» Go for a drive
» Beaches and Pools
» Household Cookouts
Moderate risk activities:
» Visit a grocery store
» Pick up medications
» Pick-up or delivery of foods
» Go to the bank
» Go to the post office
» Go to the laundromat
» Fill up your vehicle at the gas station
» Indoor restaurants and bars
» Barber shops and hair salons
» Outdoor celebrations with more than 10 guests
» Bowling alleys, pool halls and arcades
Highest risk activities:
» Visit friends and family if there is no urgent need
» Travel to or from a job outside the area, unless to perform essential services
» Travel to or from a vacation home outside of the area
» Visit loved ones in the hospital, nursing home, skilled nursing facility, or other residential care facility
» Play dates and sleepovers
» Indoor religious services
» Gyms and fitness centers
» Anywhere where physical distancing is difficult
Send us your questions about the novel coronavirus, Public Health Department information, reopening guidelines for businesses, remote learning plans for schools, or anything else, by emailing Noozhawk at email@example.com.