A COVID-19 outbreak confirmed last week at Good Samaritan's Emergency Shelter in Santa Maria involves 22 positive cases among both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents, an incident that county public health officials say highlights the continued seriousness of the pandemic.
The outbreak at the Santa Maria shelter is one of two confirmed in the past week as COVID-19 cases surge dramatically in Santa Barbara County and nationally, with the second confirmed at EF International Language Center in Santa Barbara, according to county Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso.
Good Samaritan Shelter Executive Director Sylvia Barnard said shelter staff are working with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department to isolate unvaccinated residents who tested positive, and to plan out vaccination clinics for the coming week.
Approximately 20% of shelter residents have received the COVID-19 vaccine, a rate Barnard said is much lower than in other shelter locations. However, the homeless population is also hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in general, she said.
"All our other programs have very high vaccination rates, but the Santa Maria shelter is the only one that doesn't have high rates. We anticipate that's going to change after this incident and the vaccination clinics next week," Barnard said. "It's a good reminder that we are not out of the pandemic."
Of the 22 cases at the emergency shelter, 21 are among shelter residents and one is a shelter employee, according to Do-Reynoso. The vaccination rate among shelter staff is also fairly low at 57%, a rate she hopes to see increase following the vaccination clinics.
With nearly 40% of the eligible county population still not fully vaccinated as of Friday, there remain many avenues through which the highly transmissible delta variant can spread and wreak havoc in the community, Do-Reynoso said.
As of Friday, 303 COVID-19 cases are active in the county, an increase of 94% from the two-week average of 156, according to county data. Hospitalizations are also increasing, with 28 residents being treated for COVID-19.
"I think this is just the beginning, and we're going to continue to see pockets of outbreaks," she said. "We're frustrated, because this is preventable, and we're worried because with a spike like this, we know hospitalizations will follow in two to three weeks, and then be followed by more deaths."
While some of the shelter residents who tested positive have already been vaccinated, their symptoms have been minor compared to those who are not vaccinated, Barnard said. None of the 22 individuals are hospitalized.
Breakthrough infection cases among vaccinated residents are rare but expected, seeing as none of the currently available vaccines are 100% effective against COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control,
Data from the California Department of Public Health indicates that over 21,000 of the 20.9 million state residents vaccinated as of July 22 have tested positive for COVID-19 since their vaccination, a rate of about 0.1%.
In Santa Barbara County, unvaccinated residents are 15 times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated, according to county data. As of last week, the case rate among the unvaccinated population was 3.6% compared to 0.25% among vaccinated residents.
"It all boils down to vaccinations," Do-Reynoso said. "The case rate among the vaccinated is so low, whereas for the unvaccinated it is very high and it still holds true."
While Good Samaritan was permitted to expand shelter capacity from 50% to 80% as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted this summer, the shelter has been instructed to reduce capacity limits back to 50% to allow for more social distancing, according to Barnard.
"It makes it difficult, and it's hard knowing people are out on the streets, but with our high rate of placing people into housing, that flow will continue," Barnard said.
Recent surges across the country are also believed to be connected to the highly transmissible delta variant. In recent weeks, the percentage of sequenced COVID-19 samples in Santa Barbara County that have come back as positive for the delta variant has grown from 50% to 80%, according to Do-Reynoso.