Santa Barbara County’s COVID-19 vaccine verification or testing requirement for all county employees goes into effect Sept. 30 and 72% of the county’s 4,480 employees have verified full vaccination status as of Monday.

Human Resources Director Maria Elena De Guevara gave an update on the policy implementation during the COVID-19 presentation at Tuesday’s meeting, saying that 28% of unvaccinated or partially vaccinated county employees will have to submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.

The 28% of people includes employees that have received their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, but aren’t considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after receiving their second dose, De Guevara said, adding that the Human Resources Department is still processing numbers from three or four county departments.

The county’s requirement is not a vaccine mandate, as employees will be given the option to verify vaccination status or get tested for the virus weekly, De Guevara said.

The Human Resources Department is working on creating a form for employees that are not comfortable with the PCR testing, and is considering an alternative to the PCR test, De Guevara said. However, the form will only provide for an alternative form of testing and not the testing itself, she added.

The department is still determining locations and times for the testing sites, but has hired medical assistants for county locations to help ensure that there are observers and record keepers for the testing process, De Guevara said.

Some county employees are subject to state vaccination mandates that apply to certain employees in the Public Health Department, the county Psychiatric Health Facility, Behavioral Wellness clinics, and specific employees in correctional and detention, Santa Maria Juvenile Hall, and Los Prietos Boys Camp, De Guevara explained.

The vaccine is mandated by the state for employees in those sectors, with exemptions for only medical or religious reasons, so those employees fall under a different requirement than the rest of the county employees who may choose to verify vaccination status or get tested, De Guevara said. The deadline to get vaccinated for most of the clinical groups is Sept. 30, and the deadline for the correctional and detention employees is Oct. 14, according to De Guevara.

COVID-19 Update

After a summertime surge of novel coronavirus cases, Santa Barbara County’s COVID-19 case rate has been trending downward over the past few weeks. 

Public Health officials reported a case rate of 16 daily new cases per 100,000 people on Sept. 16, a decrease of roughly 35% from the previous two weeks, Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso reported at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Do-Reynoso broke down the county’s case rate by vaccination status, revealing that cases were 4.8 times more likely to be among unvaccinated residents than vaccinated residents.

The countywide case rate on Sept. 9 was 17.2 daily new cases per 100,000 people, whereas the case rate among unvaccinated people was 30 and the case rate among vaccinated people was 6.2.

Santa Barbara County’s seven-day average case rate as of Sept. 17 was 16.68, far below the national average case rate of 42.79 but slightly above California’s statewide average of 14.56, according to Do-Reynoso. Neighboring San Luis Obispo County reported a case rate of 27, while Ventura County reported a case rate of 15, Do-Reynoso said.

The county’s hospital capacity has slightly improved from the previous week, but is still close to the “red zone” of 70% or 80% full, where medical professionals and public health officials begin to worry, Do-Reynoso said.

There were 58 current outbreaks of COVID-19 across the county as of Tuesday, including 28 in schools, 21 in congregate living facilities, and nine in businesses, Do-Reynoso said. Public Health has not been disclosing the names of facilities experiencing outbreaks. 

Additionally, there is an ongoing outbreak at the Santa Barbara County Jail, with 60 inmates currently positive as of Tuesday, according to Undersheriff Sol Linver. Linver said that the jail has had three different outbreaks over the past month, with 23 people having recovered since the initial outbreak in mid-August.

County supervisors asked about inmate booking procedures, novel coronavirus testing, and vaccination status for sheriff’s custody staff. 

Linver said custody staff may have started the outbreaks, but they are still doing contact tracing.

As of Sunday, 67.4% of the county’s eligible residents were fully vaccinated against the virus, leaving roughly one in three eligible persons unvaccinated. 

The county continues to see a modest increase in vaccination rates at the ZIP code level, with the most significant increase in the 93440 zip code of Los Alamos, the 83458 zip code of Santa Maria, and the 93429 zip code of Casmalia/Antonia, according to Do-Reynoso.

Last Friday, the Food and Drug Administration advisory panel voted to recommend the Pfizer-BioNTech booster shot for people over the age of 65 or at high risk of severe infection, and supported the authorization for healthcare workers and others at high risk of occupational exposure, Do-Reynoso said.

The booster programs cannot begin at the local or state level, however, until the FDA has made its formal approval and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its clinical guidance, she added.

Johnson & Johnson has published its clinical trial data for a booster shot and is in the process of submitting that to the FDA for evaluation, according to Do-Reynoso. She said that it is anticipated that the FDA will offer approval for the Johnson & Johnson booster shot within the next few weeks.

As the nation faces a shortage of COVID-19 testing kits, the Public Health Department is working with employers so that they can have a direct contract with the state for free employer-based testing, Do-Reynoso said.

The Public Health Department has confirmed a “mini-bus” COVID-19 testing site that will be parked at Direct Relief in Goleta beginning Sept. 27. The bus can test 168 people per day and will be open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Appointments can be booked on the Public Health website, and walk-ins are accepted as long as there is space available, Do-Reynoso said.

Flu Season

The flu season has arrived, and Do-Reynoso said it is “especially important” to get the flu vaccine in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Getting the flu vaccine is an essential part of protecting our health and our family’s health. It reduces the risk of flu illness, hospitalization, and death,” she said.

The flu season was virtually non-existent in Santa Barbara County last year as there wasn’t a lot of mobility in the community, there were still “quite a few restrictions” in place, everyone was masking and social distancing, and limiting their outings and gatherings, Do-Reynoso said.

“This year is a little bit different. We, for the most part, have resumed normalcy. There is no restriction on gathering, social distancing, and people have for the most part resumed their normal activities,” she said. “We want to make sure that everyone will continue those precautions as well as take the flu vaccine so we can keep the flu circulating at a very minimal level.”

The CDC recommends getting the influenza shot beginning in September, as it takes about two weeks after vaccination to develop the antibodies that protect against the flu, Do-Reynoso said. The flu vaccines are available at health care providers, retail pharmacies, and at many employers, schools, colleges, and universities.

Santa Barbara-area health-care providers recommend getting the flu vaccine annually in September or October so the shots are effective throughout the season.

Sansum Clinic Dr. Kurt Ransohoff and Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics Dr. Charles Fenzi said they expect a milder flu season than usual this year, but not as minimal as last year. 

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.