COVID-19 is probably infecting Santa Barbara County residents and has been for about a month, one health care official believes, but no one who has it has gotten sick enough to be diagnosed.
Dr. David Fisk, a specialist in infectious diseases with Sansum Clinic and director of infection prevention and control for Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, expressed that opinion in an update on the coronavirus outbreak delivered Tuesday to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors at their meeting in Santa Barbara.
Public Health Department Deputy Director Paige Batson and Dr. Henning Ansorg, county public health officer, ran through current statistics on the disease and explained how the county is helping the local medical community prepare.
During the discussion, 1st District Supervisor Das Williams said that in response to public concerns, he and Board Chairman and 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart had penned a letter to cruise lines and shipping companies asking that they not allow passengers to debark in Santa Barbara.
He said he expected the Santa Barbara City Council to authorize a similar letter Tuesday.
Fisk made his comment in response to 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann’s assertion that the reason health officials know COVID-19 is not in the county is that it hasn’t been spreading outward from here.
“My personal opinion is that it is in Santa Barbara County,” Fisk responded. “We just haven’t had someone sick enough with it to be tested and diagnosed. My suspicion is that it’s been here over a month.”
“I have no proof of that; it’s just a theory,” he later added, but he said he believes many of his infectious disease colleagues agree.
Fisk based his theory, in part, on the fact that many county residents travel internationally and the county has a large number of people susceptible to the disease — the elderly and those with weakened immune systems and chronic diseases.
“It is impossible to differentiate the common cold from influenza from COVID-19, adenovirus or other coronaviruses … that are in our community and causing the same symptoms,” Ansorg noted.
Because coronavirus is difficult to diagnose without a test, Ansorg urged people to stay home and keep their children home when they are sick.
“So you should stay home if there is a cough, or a temperature, or a severe runny nose or body aches,” Williams said, wanting to be precise about when children should be kept home from school.
Fisk said if cold or flu symptoms intensify into painful breathing and shortness of breath, an individual should seek medical attention. However, the person should call the hospital or clinic in advance so the staff can be prepared.
“We’d prefer people not just show up at the door,” he said.
Fisk said if there is difficulty breathing, individuals should seek medical assistance. However, he noted that while children seem to have been spared from the coronavirus, no one knows if they can be carriers for the disease.
Ansorg also said the elderly and those with compromised immune systems should think twice about going to a movie theater, a concert or a conference.
Because many people have asked about masks, Ansorg said if a sick person wears a surgical mask, 60% of cough and sneeze secretions that spread the virus are captured by the mask.
But he said there’s no scientific proof that wearing a mask has any benefit to those who are not sick.
But the county appears to be as well-prepared as possible for a situation that’s increasingly fluid.
Batson said “it is, indeed, evolving rapidly” and “the numbers are changing by the hour.” But as of Tuesday morning, California had 133 diagnosed cases and one death.
“I can tell you when I walk out of this room, the numbers will have changed,” Batson told supervisors.
The county has monitored 45 “people under investigation” and cleared 20, while five are still being monitored, she said. The other reported travelers were not coming to the county, reported no travel history or still required contact.
Fisk said currently, Cottage Hospital has 47 negative-pressure rooms available throughout its organization, and because of construction underway at the hospital, Cottage has the ability to convert additional rooms to negative pressure, but that would reduce the number of rooms available for other medical issues.
Batson said the county’s five hospitals have 62 airborne infection isolation beds and 32 ventilators, and the Public Health Department has a cache of additional ventilators if needed.
Fisk said he found it reassuring that there hasn’t been a big surge in people presenting symptoms that would trigger testing in Santa Barbara County, but he expects to see it diagnosed here.
Although he doesn’t foresee a big surge in patients requiring hospital care, he expects the infection and monitoring process will continue for at least two more months.
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