The Santa Barbara County Public Health Department reported just three new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, including another inmate in the Lompoc federal prison, and the same number of hospitalizations as the day before. 

The county has reported 267 total cases and two deaths, with 39 currently hospitalized, including 17 people in intensive care units. 

Typically, the county reports fewer test results and lower numbers of new cases on weekends. 

While Public Health reports all positive and negative COVID-19 test results, the department does not know all tests conducted within the county, which means the total testing number is underreported. 

On Sunday, 1,798 total test results were reported. 

The county has not released any information about the two people who have died of the novel coronavirus, or their “underlying conditions.” Both reportedly were in their 60s.

Public Health officials have released only limited demographic information about the local COVID-19 cases.

The totals are broken down into gender, age range and geographic area, showing that the North County has more than double the number of cases than the South Coast.

The outbreak at the Lompoc federal penitentiary is getting worse, with 46 inmates and 14 staff testing positive as of Sunday, but that does not account for the disparity.

Even without the prison-related cases, the North County (Santa Maria Valley, Cuyama Valley, Lompoc Valley and Santa Ynez Valley) has about 52 percent of the county population and 69 percent of the cases.

Santa Barbara County is prioritizing its testing for “Tier 1” cases: severely ill people, and symptomatic first responders, health care workers, and people who live in congregate living settings, such as nursing homes, shelters and jails.

That prioritization may partially explain why the county has reported 37 health care workers and seven sheriff’s deputies (including Main Jail custody staff) among the positive cases.  

There is not enough capacity to expand testing to people with mild symptoms, or people without risk factors such as age and chronic health conditions, Public Health officials repeatedly say.

Most local cases at this point are assumed to have been community transmission – person-to-person spread locally – but the county is not doing contact tracing investigations for the general public.

Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said last week that the investigations are being conducted for confirmed cases of people living in congregate living settings and essential county and city employees “to protect the rest of the essential workforce.”

Dr. Henning Ansorg, the public health officer, said Friday that regional testing capacity is increasing week by week. Results come in faster now since commercial labs upgraded their equipment and the county received 200 rapid test kits last week, he said.

Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and Marian Regional Medical Center have those tests now, which means they can make faster clinical decisions for patient care. 

County lab director Dr. Stewart Comer said he thinks serology testing — blood testing for novel coronavirus antibodies — is the “next phase” of pandemic response.

Several California counties, including Los Angeles, have started large-scale antibody testing to get a better understanding of the virus’ reach and fatality rate.

There is one FDA-approved blood test that checks for antibodies related to COVID-19, Ansorg said.

It is still unknown what level of antibodies renders a person immune to the disease, he noted, adding that he thinks there will be rapid study of this in the near future, along with more sensitive antibody testing methods.

“I am anticipating these new tests eagerly because they will make it possible to separate persons who have had the disease from persons at risk of contracting it,” he said.

Ansorg also noted that there are several at-home tests being marketed right now, but they are not FDA-approved and are not proven to be accurate.

The nasal swab testing that Public Health Departments and healthcare providers are doing tests for the presence of the novel coronavirus, while antibody tests measure the immune system’s response to a past infection. 

Data analysis shows the COVID-19 fatality rate in California is flat, and related hospital admissions are decreasing statewide, which is a good sign.

“It’s Day 18 of the governor’s stay-at-home order, and I am encouraged that we’ve had the first indication there is a slight deceleration of new infections. It gives me hope we will be able to slow down the virus,” Ansorg said last Monday. “Let us not give up early.”

Do-Reynoso presented modeling to the Board of Supervisors last week that showed the positive potential impacts of social distancing on the number and timeline of cases.

The county’s five hospitals have an existing and surge capacity for 700 beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients, but only 131 of those are intensive care unit beds.

During the past week, there have been 17-19 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in ICUs each day, well below the county’s existing capacity. 

If California and Santa Barbara County are “bending the curve” of new cases and hospitalizations, the conversation will soon shift to what comes next. 

County supervisors said during the modeling presentation that they want to start discussing the next steps, including ways to safely reopen some of the businesses and institutions that were shuttered during the stay-at-home orders.  

“As time goes on, this is going to start wearing on people more and more, and I think we’re going to be subject to more demands to lift social-distancing guidelines and try to find the people who are at the highest risk and protect them rather than getting everybody,” Supervisor Peter Adam said at the time. “I think that we should start those discussions sooner rather than later, until we run into failure or rebellion. At some point people are going to stop cooperating.”

First District County Supervisor Das Williams said he agreed. 

“My view is that if workplaces were properly equipped, if preparations were made, more people could go back to work while maintaining a certain level of social distancing, and that would be an important job for Public Health to advise employers,” he said. 

The Board of Supervisors will be talking about the next fiscal year’s 2020-21 budget at Monday’s all-day workshop, with presentations for every department and special issues, including the ongoing library system deficits and long-range planning division workload. 

COVID-19 data trackers, such as this one created by former Graphiq engineer David Schnurr, compare the number of cases, testing, and deaths between states and between counties. 

According to that dashboard, Santa Barbara County has had 49.1 cases reported per 100,000 residents, which places its rate at No. 8 among California counties. 

Among U.S. states and territories, California was at No. 32, with 56.7 cases per 100,000 residents, as of Saturday. New York had the highest rate, with 927.6 cases per 100,000 residents. 

Click here for more information about COVID-19 from the county Public Health Department.

Click here for Noozhawk’s Coronavirus Crisis section.

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