Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Multiple Noozhawk readers have asked versions of the same question: If Santa Barbara County novel coronavirus case counts were broken down by city or region, would any areas qualify for reopening under state standards? 

There’s no doubt that residents in the North County, specifically the Santa Maria Valley, have been hit the hardest by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Reasons for this include the high population of essential workers there, who cannot always social distance at their workplaces, and large outbreaks in congregate-living facilities such as skilled nursing homes and farmworker housing.

In a May survey of about 135 Santa Maria residents who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, many of them worked in essential services, including health care, agriculture, government, customer service and at the Lompoc federal correctional complex, where an outbreak infected more than 1,000 inmates and dozens of staff members.

Local hospitalizations are also concentrated in Santa Maria at Marian Regional Medical Center

Because of the higher rate of reported virus transmission in the North County versus the South Coast, the Public Health Department has been asked about regionally different restrictions a lot, spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz said.

The county has not considered issuing different health orders for different areas, however, because there is so much movement within the county and the region, she said.

Thousands of people drive to work on the South Coast from North County and western Ventura County every day, and the Public Health case numbers only signify where a person with a positive test results lives, not necessarily where they work or were infected.

Santa Barbara County (and 36 other counties) is on the state’s watchlist for not meeting standards for elevated disease transmission, specifically for the number of new cases reported every two weeks.

With a countywide population around 450,000, the state’s reopening metric for Santa Barbara County is 450 cases per 14-day period (100 per 100,000 population).

The county reported 1,440 new cases (people who tested positive) in the 14-day period ending Monday, which is three times the state metric.

By not meeting that metric, and others, the county is subject to additional restrictions, such as closing indoor restaurants, bars and hair salons.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said schools in counties on the watchlist need to use distance learning in the fall, but on Tuesday he released K-6 waiver requirements to allow some of those schools to apply for in-person reopening.

The California Department of Public Health recommends not opening schools within counties that have more than double the case rate threshold, which would be 200 cases per 100,000 population, which would seem to disqualify Santa Barbara County (which has triple the reopening metric rate).

“Santa Barbara County continues to experience widespread virus transmission in the community and, therefore, will not be able to open K-12 schools for in-person learning in the fall,” county Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said Tuesday. “Given our current trend upward with virus cases, we will not be able to grant waivers for elementary schools for the foreseeable future.” 

Regional Breakdowns of Cases

To get to the readers’ question, we can break down the cases and the standards by North County (Santa Maria, Lompoc, Santa Ynez and Cuyama valleys) and South Coast (Goleta Valley, Santa Barbara and Carpinteria Valley — basically southeast of the Highway 101 Gaviota tunnel).

Santa Barbara County Public Health case map

A Public Health Department map shows the number of novel coronavirus cases (people who have tested positive) in Santa Barbara County by region. (Santa Barbara County Public Health Department photo)

Something to keep in mind is that the county says cases have been underreported recently because of database technology issues, so even communities that seem close to meeting reopening criteria likely have more cases than have been reported by the Public Health Department. 

The estimated 2018 population breakdown was 233,370 for the North County and 210,368 for the South Coast, according to the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments.

With the state standard of 100 cases per 100,000 population, North County has a goal of 233 cases per 14-day period. In reality, there have been 1,068 cases in the past two weeks for North County areas, and Santa Maria alone has exceeded the standard, with 756 cases in 14 days.  

The South Coast would have a reopening target of 210 cases per 14-day period. Santa Barbara alone reported more than that (232), but the South Coast total of 372 is closer to the reopening target compared with the North County.

The number of cases is just one of the state’s reopening metrics, along with standards for testing and hospital capacity. The Public Health Department does not report test results or hospitalizations by geographic area.

Basing it purely on the number of new reported cases, and the standard of 100 per 100,000 population, county regions close to meeting the standard as of Monday seem to be Isla Vista, Goleta and the Santa Ynez Valley.

Goleta, for example, has a population of about 31,000 people, so it would have a standard of 31 cases for 14 days, but reported 39.

Santa Barbara County Public Health case count by area

A Public Health graph shows the number of positive cases reported in a 14-day period, by region. (Santa Barbara County Public Health Department photo)

Isla Vista, with a 23,000 population reported in 2010, reported 22 cases in a 14-day period, and the Santa Ynez Valley, with its estimated 22,670 population, reported 19 cases.

Click here for the Public Health Department’s daily status reports on positive cases.

Click here for a guide to understanding the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department’s novel coronavirus/COVID-19 reports. 

Click here for Noozhawk’s Coronavirus Crisis section.

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