Santa Barbara County's COVID-19 situation 'dire,' SLO County focuses on vaccination

Jan 7, 2021

Intensive care unit bed capacity is reaching a limit in Santa Barbara County, and health officials warn it may get worse.

“In light of our current situation, I am at a loss," said Santa Barbara County Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg this week. "I honestly don’t know what to say anymore." 

Ansorg said the county is seeing the results of Thanksgiving gatherings and called the situation '"dire"' as ICU capacity is now below 1% in Santa Barbara County.

He warns the situation may get worse, as the county will not know the impact of recent holiday behavior for a couple of weeks. 

“Many people are blatantly disregarding all warnings," Ansorg said. "I understand that people are tired of the pandemic. However, denial of the facts will only make things worse.”

Ansorg said the county health department is working closely with ambulance companies on deciding where a COVID-19 patient should go.

“[To see] which kind of patients really need to be transported to the emergency room, which patients can be redirected to an urgent care and which can be discharged from the hospital so the hospitals can get some relief from getting overfilled,” Ansorg said. 

While San Luis Obispo County's public health official, Dr. Penny Borenstein, said although SLO County ICU space isn't stretched as thin as Santa Barbara County, the rapid increase of infections over the past month has her concerned. Positive cases have jumped 20% in past week.

“For those of you who are living in this county and not seeing [what SB County is experiencing], that is unfortunately at our doorstep,” Borenstein told the county board of supervisors Tuesday.

Borenstein said her office is in constant communication with area hospitals to ensure they have sufficient capacity and staffing to take care of COVID-19 patients.

At Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing, on a screen behind Borenstein, a digital chart showed the local death rate from COVID-19 over the course of the pandemic . The line went straight up in the past two weeks.

“If this doesn't take your breath away and help you understand the severity of this illness, I'm not sure that there's anything else that I can say,” Borenstein said.

But it’s still not as dire in SLO County as Santa Barbara County and beyond when it comes to available ICU beds.

Asked if it’s true people going to SLO County hospitals are being turned away due to lack of beds, Borenstein said no.

“We'll certainly look into that, but that's not what we're hearing from our hospital directors and chief nursing officers,” Borenstein said. “It is absolutely happening in other parts of the state.

The good news, Borenstein said Wednesday, is that more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine continue to arrive in San Luis Obispo County each day. All healthcare workers—from ER nurses to primary care doctors and pharmacists—are able to get the vaccine, say county officials.

By the end of the month or early February, vaccine distribution will expand to include the next phase—older people and critical infrastructure workers.

“Our two Achilles heels, if you will, related to this expansion are one, having all the staff to administer the expanded number of doses, and two, actually having the vaccine supply,” Borenstein said.

She said those eager to get the vaccine will just need to keep checking the county’s website at emergencyslo.org.

“We are getting hundreds and hundreds of inquiries a day,” Borenstein said. “Unfortunately, we cannot maintain a wait list.”