When it comes to grocery markets and crowded retail stores, about half of Santa Barbara thinks wearing a mask in indoor public places is a good idea, despite lifting the mask requirement in February. Employees who meet regular customers and first-time visitors face-to-face every day have seen colleagues and friends being absent from work due to a surge in COVID cases, and have decided to be cautious. The numbers on the county’s COVID dashboard confirm what they’ve seen: The new cases chart is bouncing up and down, but since April the trajectory has been steadily increasing, with the county’s weekly coronavirus cases roughly doubling over the past week to have.
While infections have increased significantly, hospitalizations – although higher – have not impacted the healthcare system. Illnesses are less severe than before — many patients find out they have COVID when they go to the hospital for other procedures — either because of vaccination or residual immunity from a recent infection. COVID remains the leading cause of respiratory illness in the community, said Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, infectious disease specialist and educator at Cottage Health. And testing remains important for knowing the extent of a very, very contagious disease, she said.
A new nationwide program, Test to Treat, has put all the ingredients for COVID care in one place. In Santa Barbara they can be found at the Public Health Trailer at Direct Relief and at the Santa Maria Fairgrounds. (See publichealthsbc.org/test-to-treat or call the Santa Maria website  634-1123 x8 to make an appointment.) Anyone with a positive test, either at home or at the health care site, will speak to a nurse in person or via video, explained Dr. Henning Ansorg, Santa Barbara County Health Officer, to check them out for the drugs — mostly Paxlovid.
“Tests, telemedicine advice and medication are free at these locations!” said Ansorg. CVS has a few locations that meet all of those needs, he added, and most pharmacies are now stocking the drugs after experiencing shortages last month. Time is of the essence when testing, as the drug should be started within five days of the onset of symptoms.
The new wave of cases is rolling across California, with average cases for the week rising to more than 9,000 last Friday, compared to 7,000 the previous Friday and 5,000 the previous Friday. San Francisco has reported the largest increase in case numbers Los Angeles Timesbut Santa Barbara County has the largest percentage increase — 112 percent over the past two weeks, from 107 to 228 cases per week per 100,000 people — followed by Santa Clara County at 111 percent.
At work, said Dr. Ansorg, these are infections and reinfections. “Unfortunately,” he said, “people who contracted COVID during last summer’s delta wave could catch it again with the original Omicron.” That bug, which was widespread in January, created a short-lived immunity. “The later emerging Omicron variants – BA.2 and BA.2.12.1 – are now able to reinfect someone who had Omicron earlier this year,” Ansorg explained.
Sewage, another way to track the COVID virus, is measured weekly in Santa Barbara; it was up the first week of May and down the second week. San Francisco and Los Angeles measure wastewater two or three times a week, and the 10-day moving average has been down or leveling off, according to the Cal SuWers Network. also dr Fitzgibbons has the sewage data in mind and from the results from Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, “It’s entirely possible that we’re already in the downturn,” she said optimistically, but she agreed with Ansorg’s implication that Santa Barbara was rife with disease gave.
Not only is Omicron less severe—more like a cold than pneumonia—it also produces symptoms more quickly. They start within two or three days of exposure rather than three to five days for the earlier variants, meaning home COVID tests are working sooner. To protect against the coronavirus, Ansorg recommended what Public Health has been recommending all along: wear a good mask (N95 and KN95 are best), avoid crowds, and get vaccinated or boosted.
Second booster shots for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are currently recommended five months after the last vaccination for those over 50, for those over 12 with a compromised immune system, and for those aged 18 to 49 who received a Johnson vaccine & Johnson vaccine.
They continue to offer good protection against COVID, particularly with Omicron BA.5, which is a concern across Europe and South Africa, where more extensive testing is underway and was an early health barometer for the United States. Disease susceptibility remained an issue, said Dr. Ansorg: “It is not clear whether someone who is immune to BA.2 or BA.2.12.1 is protected against this version and for how long.”
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