Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital has been seeing patients who are less sick with COVID-19 compared to previous surges in novel coronavirus cases, Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons said.
Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital has been seeing patients who are less sick with COVID-19 compared to previous surges in novel coronavirus cases, Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons said.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Hospitals are making record-breaking numbers of new COVID-19 diagnoses in the early days of 2022, but patients overall are less sick than they have been during prior surges, Cottage Health Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons said.

In the first five days of 2022, the three Cottage Health hospitals diagnosed 165 people with COVID-19.

At Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, the emergency department and inpatient staff are intubating fewer patients (for ventilators) and seeing “less advanced disease by the time people show up,” said Fitzgibbons, who is an infectious diseases specialist.

There are several factors for that trend, she says: “the excellent protection the community enjoys from the great vaccination efforts, and how many have been boostered, which we know is providing a lot of protection against severe disease even if people fall ill.”

The hospital measures the ratio of people hospitalized for COVID-19 for the number of community cases, “and that ratio is a bit better than during past surges,” Fitzgibbons said. “In other words, it’s early in the surge, but at this stage we are seeing fewer hospitalizations for every 100 community cases.”

Fitzgibbons is quick to note that the hospital does still have patients with severe COVID-19 illness, and that it is early in the surge. Hospitalizations typically increase a few weeks after the number of new cases increases, based on experience in prior surges of the pandemic.

“We have to remember surge is only really with us for … in my mind about Dec. 20 in Santa Barbara County, so it really is early days for how much severe disease we eventually get.”

As of Thursday, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital had 31 confirmed COVID-19-positive patients in the hospital, and only one of them was in critical condition.

“I think that’s a very, very positive sign – we just have to follow it,” she said.

People at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 include individuals who are not vaccinated, those who are over the age of 65, those who are immunocompromised, and people with certain medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A CDC study released Friday found that among 1.2 million fully vaccinated adults who experienced serious illness from COVID-19 between December 2020 and October 2021, all of them had at least one risk factor.

“In this study, age ≥65 years, immunosuppression, diabetes, and chronic kidney, cardiac, pulmonary, neurologic, and liver disease were associated with higher odds for severe COVID-19 outcomes; all persons with severe COVID-19 outcomes after primary vaccination had at least one of these risk factors,” the study summary states.

Limitations of the study included the possibility of misclassification due to inaccurate or incomplete medical and billing records, according to the CDC.

Vaccinated persons who are older, immunosuppressed, or have other underlying conditions should receive targeted interventions including chronic disease management, precautions to reduce exposure, additional primary and booster vaccine doses, and effective pharmaceutical therapy to mitigate risk for severe outcomes.

Increasing vaccination coverage is a critical public health priority.

Santa Barbara County Sees Surge in New Cases, Reports 70% Vaccination Rate

About 70% of Santa Barbara County residents 5 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Public Health Department.

Click here for more information about vaccination and free, local vaccination clinics and pharmacy locations. 

Santa Barbara County has reported 5,320 new novel coronavirus cases in the past week, as of Friday, and 55,726 total during the pandemic.

Fitzgibbons said healthcare facilities are concerned about staffing shortages since some employees themselves are out sick or quarantining during the surge in community transmission of the virus.

To be hit with a wave of staff absences on top of existing shortages means “we’re certainly feeling it,” Fitzgibbons said “Staffing is probably our biggest challenge at this point.”

Hospitals staffing, not the number of physical beds, has been the limiting factor in healthcare during surges of COVID-19.

Local hospitals and surgery centers have limited or canceled elective surgeries during previous surges due to staffing concerns, and that could be a possibility during the current wave of new cases.

Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s emergency department staff ask people “to remember to be kind,” Fitzgibbons said. “It’s not the fault of the emergency department staff that the emergency rooms are busy, and that we do have to take safe care of everybody through this surge.”

“I think healthcare staff are working very, very hard, and I think we have a community that’s exhausted and sick, and that had potential to cause some fractures.”

The next few weeks are going to be hard, she said.

“We really do have a lot of indication this surge will hit hard and fast, and then subside quicker than prior surges,” she said. “We’re all making difficult decisions on things to pause, stop or defer, but it’s important to remember that it’s very likely we’re back to what looks like a lot more normal life by February, certainly late February.”

Have you tested positive for COVID-19 or been exposed to someone who has? Click here for Santa Barbara County Public Health Department information on what to do next.

Read more stories in Noozhawk’s Coronavirus section here. 

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