While ICU capacity in Santa Barbara County remains well above that of surrounding areas, public health officials remain concerned about a spike in local COVID-19 cases and the impacts of utilizing surge capacity in local hospitals.

The confirmation of 264 new cases on Tuesday brought the county past the 15,000-case mark, with the numbers of active COVID-19 cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations as high as they’ve ever been. 

“We now have 10 times as many infected people in the county as in early November," county Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said Tuesday. “Thankfully, our local ICU capacity remains above 30%, compared to the rest of the state where it is dismally low.” 

A total of 103 county residents are currently hospitalized for COVID-19 in Santa Barbara County, including 22 individuals in the ICU. The current ICU capacity is 40%, a percentage that does not include the potential ICU surge capacity, Ansorg said.

Surge capacity refers to additional unstaffed beds set aside for use if existing staffed beds are filled. According to Ansorg, the exact number of surge beds in the county is unknown, since it depends on whether additional beds could be staffed by a nurse.

“To go into surge mode means that one ICU nurse would need to take care of more patients. We want to avoid that because those workers are already stretched to the limit,” he said. 

Of the 15,198 total cases in the county, 1,245 cases remain active. 

As cases continue to rise throughout the state, breaking new records each day, state officials are considering extending the regional stay-at-home order past the original three-week time frame, with a decision to come by early next week.

As of Tuesday, state officials still have not provided a concrete answer to Santa Barbara County's request to be separated from the Southern California region, along with San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, 4th District Supervisor Gregg Hart said.

Two additional deaths from COVID-19 also were confirmed Tuesday —  one resident of Santa Maria between the ages of 50 to 69, and a resident over the age of 70 from the unincorporated North County area, which encompasses Sisquoc, Casmalia, Garey, Cuyama, New Cuyama and Guadalupe.

According to county public health data, neither individual had underlying conditions. However, public health officials explained that the term “underlying conditions” can be misleading. 

According to Ansorg “underlying conditions” can refer to minor conditions such as obesity and asthma along with more serious chronic illnesses. 

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The danger of this term, he said, is that community members may assume that only those with severe illnesses or a compromised immune system can die from the disease, which is untrue. 

“I feel very uncomfortable about saying someone died with underlying conditions,” he said. “I'm saying that because my experience has been that many people dismiss a death when they hear that the person had underlying conditions.”

Ansorg was not able to provide a breakdown of how many COVID-19 deaths in the county have been of people with minor underlying conditions versus serious illnesses. 

A total of 150 individuals now have died from COVID-19 in Santa Barbara County.

In the city of Santa Maria, 374 out of 5,751 total cases remain active. Seventy-nine individuals have died.

In the community of Orcutt, 82 out of 741 total cases remain active. Eight individuals have died.

In the city of Lompoc, 158 out of 1,636 total cases remain active. Eleven individuals have died.

In the Santa Ynez Valley, which includes the areas of Solvang, Buellton, Los Olivos, Los Alamos, Santa Ynez and Ballard, 45 out of 360 total cases remain active. Eight individuals have died.

In the unincorporated North County area, 44 out of 636 total cases remain active. Eight individuals have died.

The San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department reported its most recent highest single-day increase on Tuesday, with an additional 258 COVID-19 cases, along with five deaths from the virus.

Tuesday’s case increase brings the county past the 9,000-case mark, with 9,061 total cases now confirmed. Of this total, 2,050 cases remain active, or 22%, the highest number of active cases in the county thus far in the pandemic.

Of the five deaths confirmed Tuesday, two individuals were in their 70s, one individual was in their 80s and two individuals were in their 90s, according to county public health spokeswoman Michelle Shoresman. Sixty-five county residents now have died from COVID-19. 

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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