Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau
The Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau, managed by the Sheriff’s Department, investigated unattended and traumatic deaths, including some COVID-19-related deaths. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Last week, a 76-year-old Santa Barbara County man reportedly collapsed on his couch and died, about two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19.

That was the latest COVID-19-related case investigated by the county Coroner’s Bureau, a division of the Sheriff’s Department.

The Coroner’s Bureau typically investigates unattended deaths, of people not under a doctor’s care, and traumatic deaths, such as accidents, homicides and suicides, according to Lt. Erik Raney, who manages the office.

Most of the 31 local COVID-19 deaths have occurred at hospitals or care homes, where attending physicians certify the deaths, but not all of them.

“This past week, we had a case of an elderly person who was feeling ill, who went and got tested, who tested positive, and then died at home, so that case came to us,” Raney said Wednesday.

That man, the 76-year-old, had underlying conditions of diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, Raney said. The man “had a loss of appetite and body aches as a result of the COVID and collapsed unresponsive on the couch.”

The Coroner’s Bureau conducts COVID-19 testing on cases that have an indication the disease could have been a contributing factor to the death, or to confirm a reported positive test.

Death certificates will list the cause of death, whatever the major event was (such as a heart attack) and contributing factors, such as COVID-19, and those deaths will be documented in the county’s COVID-19-related death toll, Raney said.

There have been “a few” cases where there was no test on record, but a decedent was positive for the novel coronavirus when tested by the Coroner’s Bureau staff, he said.

“In the beginning, when the community testing sites were not set up, we were testing a lot more that we suspected might have COVID-19 just because of the symptomology, but the majority of tests were negative, which was interesting,” he said.

Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau

Santa Barbara County’s Coroner’s Bureau requested and received a donated tractor-trailer for additional storage space at its Goleta-area facility. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

Now, more of their COVID-related cases have already had a positive test.

Procedural changes in the office include staggered work shifts to avoid crowded office spaces and wearing extra personal protective equipment, including N-95 masks, for all death investigations.

“Just because the disease is out there in the community, we are increasing the precautions on every case,” Raney said.

The pathologist, four investigators, a sergeant and an administrative staff member use a rotating work-from-home and remote work site schedule to avoid all investigators being affected if there was a potential exposure, according to Raney.

“It’s an effort to make sure people with specific expertise who work in that office don’t all contract COVID at the same time and put us out of business, so to speak,” he said.

County Pursued Additional Storage to Manage Pandemic-Related Deaths

In March, the county was looking at modeling for the pandemic and saw the potential death rate was going to be higher than the system could handle, which was 255 bodies among the two county morgues, hospitals and mortuaries, Raney said.

“We were seeing what was happening in New York, where they were using makeshift morgues,” Raney said.

The Sheriff’s Department purchased a refrigerated cargo container and installed it as permanent overflow storage space, and received a donated refrigerated tractor-trailer through the California Office of Emergency Services’ coroner mutual aid system.

The trailer was delivered awhile ago, but on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors officially accepted the donation from Hub City Terminals, which donated hundreds of the trailers to coroners around the country.

“Luckily, we haven’t had to use it, either one of our overflow storages. Our south and north morgue facilities can hold about 40 and 20, respectively, at any one time,” Raney said, adding that each of the new storage containers can hold about 40 bodies.

Both of the trailers are located at the Goleta-area facility, 66 S. San Antonio Road. 

COVID-19 Deaths in Santa Barbara County 

The death rate in Santa Barbara County has not been as dire as models projected in March, with 31 COVID-19-related deaths reported as of Friday. Eleven of the deaths were of elderly Santa Maria residents of the Country Oaks Care Center skilled nursing facility, and three were men incarcerated at the Lompoc federal correctional complex. 

While the county hit its highest-ever number of COVID-19 hospital patients on Thursday, with 80 people, the health care system has the capacity to handle the current number of patients.

Eight deaths were reported in April, four deaths were reported in May, 17 deaths were reported in June and two have been reported in July. 

Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau

Santa Barbara County’s Coroner’s Bureau purchased a refrigerated cargo container, left, for additional storage space in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has not been used yet. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

One person was in their 40s, one was in their 50s, eight were in their 60s and the rest were older than age 70, according to Public Health

Most of them had “underlying conditions,” a catch-all term that public health officials have used to indicate someone had a pre-existing medical condition.  

Some of the common medical conditions for people being hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms locally have included heart disease and high blood pressure, chronic lung disease, diabetes or pre-diabetes, and obesity, Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said.

The Bureau of Prisons contracts with the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Bureau for some death investigations, typically for natural deaths, including Lompoc federal correctional complex inmates who died of COVID-19.

The cause of death is still pending for 37-year-old Mohammed Yusef, an inmate who died on May 25. The BOP reported his death as COVID-19-related at the time, but the Coroner’s Bureau is still investigating, which is why the Public Health Department has not yet counted his death.

Raney said Yusef tested positive on May 7 and was treated at the prison for a COVID-related respiratory infection.

“He had since tested clear (no longer infectious) and returned to his housing unit, when he was found down near his bunk on the 25th,” he said. “He was obese, but otherwise had no specific medical problems. There were some underlying medical findings discovered at autopsy. We have the cause of death as pending at the moment, awaiting the return of further medical records, toxicology, etc.”

There have been three other COVID-19-related deaths among inmates at the Lompoc federal correctional complex, which has seen an outbreak infect more than 1,000 people, including hundreds of inmates and dozens of staff members.

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