Registered nurse Maricela Hurtado administers a novel coronavirus nasal swab test at Sansum Clinic’s car-based site in Santa Barbara on Aug. 4, 2020.
Registered nurse Maricela Hurtado administers a coronavirus nasal swab test at Sansum Clinic’s car-based site in Santa Barbara on Aug. 4, 2020. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The first batch of school reopening waiver applications has brought focus back to novel coronavirus testing availability, since districts are required to regularly test all staff members.

Santa Barbara County’s public health officer, Dr. Henning Ansorg, says this type of surveillance testing is important to catch any “silent spreaders” – people who are infected with the virus and could be contagious, even though they don’t display symptoms.

Faced with a major backlog of testing results in July, the county told people to only request a test if they have symptoms or known exposure to someone who tested positive for the virus.

The current guidance expands that to people with high-risk living and working environments, such as nursing homes, grocery stores or schools. 

Ansorg said the state’s decision to switch laboratories has recently improved turnaround times for test results, with most of them reported within two days. 

“Testing is most valuable if you have a quick result and you can act on it really quickly,” he said. 

Free, by-appointment testing is available at multiple state-run centers, which are currently in Santa Maria, Buellton and Goleta. Testing is also available at county healthcare clinics, community clinics, urgent care centers and other medical providers. 

There were two-week wait times for appointments at the state-run sites in July, but as of this week, appointments were available every day at the Buellton location, and within a day or two for the Santa Maria and Goleta locations. 

“Even in the community testing sites, I think 70 percent of people who get a test are asymptomatic, just because we have enough testing available,” Ansorg said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released guidance against testing for asymptomatic people, but leaders in California and several other states said they will continue testing close contacts of confirmed cases, even if those people do not have symptoms.

“I still think it’s very important to find those positive cases in order to limit their spread as quickly as possible. That is really the way to get our numbers down,” Ansorg said.

Once someone tests positive, the Public Health Department can isolate them and start a contact tracing investigation to identify any close contacts in the days leading up to their symptoms or testing appointment. 

During interviews, the county’s contact tracers ask people whether they have symptoms, and asymptomatic positive cases are added every day, according to the county data dashboard.

As of Wednesday, the county reported 777 asymptomatic positive cases, 4,975 symptomatic positive cases, and 120 positive cases under investigation. Thousands of cases are unknown, since this was not something the county has been tracking since the beginning, according to public health.

“The percentage for asymptomatic is greater in the younger generations, including kids overall, or minor symptoms,” Ansorg said.

As of Wednesday, the county reported that 19 local schools had submitted reopening waiver applications, including: Coastline Christian Academy; The Howard School; The Knox School of Santa Barbara; Laguna Blanca; SYV Family School; Valley Christian Academy; Waldorf School of Santa Barbara; Crane Country Day School; Santa Ynez Valley Christian Academy; Pacific Christian Elementary School; Marymount School; Cold Spring School District; Montecito Union School District; Providence School; Montessori Center School; St. Raphael School; St. Mary of the Assumption; Our Lady of Mount Carmel School; and Dunn School. 

Children at in-person schools will be screened for symptoms regularly, but there are no testing requirements in the current reopening guidelines. Face coverings will be required for all staff and for students in third grade and up.

California removed testing capacity from its metrics used to gauge each county’s level of virus transmission, but Santa Barbara County was generally meeting the standard. The state’s new system focuses on the number of new positive cases reported, and test positivity (how many tested people get a positive result).

In the past week, Santa Barbara County’s daily number of new test results ranged from 594 to 1,767, with an error causing an abnormally-low 88 tests on Saturday.

On Wednesday, the county reported two deaths of South Coast congregate living facility residents, both over the age of 70. One person lived in the Santa Barbara and Mission Canyon area and one lived in the area of Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria.

There have been 97 COVID-19-related deaths in the county. 

Sixty-six new positive cases were reported on Wednesday, and the countywide COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to decline.

Of the new cases, 18 are in the Santa Maria Valley, 16 are in the Santa Barbaera area, 14 are in the Lompoc Valley, five are in Isla Vista, two each are in the Goleta Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley, and one is in the Montecito-Summerland-Carpinteria area.

Geographic locations were pending on eight cases.

There were 41 COVID-19 patients being treated in local hospitals, with 18 of those in intensive care units. Both of those numbers are increases from the previous day.

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