Wednesday, June 2, 2021

SLO and Santa Barbara counties meet state’s criteria for yellow tier

Posted By on Wed, Jun 2, 2021 at 10:44 AM

Record-low COVID-19 cases in SLO and Santa Barbara counties have put both on track to move into the state’s least restrictive yellow tier next week—just before California is scheduled to lift many pandemic-era restrictions.

On June 1, for the first time since the state’s four-tier system was adopted, SLO and Santa Barbara counties posted weekly COVID-19 metrics that met the yellow tier’s criteria.

STOPPING THE SPREAD SLO County recorded a record-low COVID-19 weekly case rate on June 1: 1.5 cases per 100,000 residents. - GRAPH COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH
  • GRAPH COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY PUBLIC HEALTH
  • STOPPING THE SPREAD SLO County recorded a record-low COVID-19 weekly case rate on June 1: 1.5 cases per 100,000 residents.
Both counties reported 0.7 percent positivity rates, while SLO County posted a case rate of 1.5 per 100,000 residents, and Santa Barbara County posted a case rate of 1.3 per 100,000 residents. If those numbers stay below two per 100,000 for another week, the counties will move into the state’s yellow tier on June 8, joining 19 others, including Ventura and Monterey.

Compared to the orange tier—where SLO and Santa Barbara currently are—the yellow tier mostly relaxes capacity restrictions on indoor businesses, like gyms and bars.

On June 15, California will scrap its tier system and lift many of the restrictions it adopted for COVID-19 statewide, including indoor capacity limits and social distancing requirements.

Under the new rules, masks will still be required in indoor public settings, regardless of one’s vaccination status. For vaccinated people, masks will not be required in outdoor settings, unless at a crowded public event. For unvaccinated people, masks will be required in any public setting.

According to the state, the new guidelines will be in effect until Oct. 1, when the state will “assess conditions ... to determine whether updated requirements or recommendations are needed.” ∆

—Peter Johnson

Monday, May 17, 2021

Carbajal pushes for relief for special districts

Posted By on Mon, May 17, 2021 at 5:01 PM

Special districts provide water, wastewater, fire protection, health care, parks and recreation, and more to about 2,000 California communities, but they have been left out of federal relief since the onset of the pandemic.

“As a result, 42 percent of special districts have had to scale back the essential services they provide and 1 out of 3 special districts have reduced their frontline workforce,” U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) said in a press release.

The state’s special districts anticipate a collective $2.4 billion in economic impacts. Charlotte Holifield, public affairs field coordinator for the California Special Districts Association, said that without relief, special districts, which employ more than 120,000 people, are facing layoffs, fewer services, and impacts on quality of service.

In a May 12 letter, Carbajal and other state representatives urged California leaders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, and State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, to ensure that special districts statewide can access COVID-19 relief funding under the American Rescue Plan.

The American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress and signed into law this spring, explicitly provides states with the authority to open a portion of the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund money to special districts. California will receive $27 billion under the program.

“When special districts are excluded from relief, essential frontline workers and community residents are excluded from relief. The American Rescue Plan gave states the authority to direct a portion of COVID-19 relief dollars to special districts, and I encourage our state to lead by example by ensuring special districts have the same level of access to fiscal relief as their local government counterparts,” Carbajal said in the release. ∆
—Karen Garcia

Thursday, May 13, 2021

As Santa Maria area students return to campus, Public Health plans vaccine clinics

Posted By on Thu, May 13, 2021 at 3:38 PM

As more high school students return to campus, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department hopes to partner with local schools as early as next week to encourage vaccination for those who are eligible.

County Department of Behavioral Wellness Chief Quality Care and Strategy Officer Suzanne Grimmesey explained that before the county can implement these clinics, the state must release guidelines for the newly eligible 12-plus age group.

COMING BACK By May 18, Pioneer Valley High School students and others in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District will have the option to learn on campus part of the week in a hybrid model. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SANTA MARIA JOINT UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SANTA MARIA JOINT UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • COMING BACK By May 18, Pioneer Valley High School students and others in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District will have the option to learn on campus part of the week in a hybrid model.
“California is waiting on the guidelines for dosage and parental consent,” Grimmesey said. “As soon as that is finalized and out … that’s when we’ll start setting exact plans for being out at school sites.”

Santa Barbara County Public Health Director Dr. Van Do-Reynoso said at a May 11 Board of Supervisors presentation that the CDC’s Independent Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will be voting to finalize that guidance on May 12.

“Meanwhile, in anticipation, we have been planning for school-based clinics, and we are ready to implement them as soon as next week,” she said. “We’re also in planning stages with our pharmacies and other health care providers who are providing the Pfizer vaccine, and in addition to that, our public health vaccination team will be going on to schools to provide those school-based clinics.”

While children aged 16 and older can get vaccinated with a parent’s written consent and do not need to be accompanied, the rules could look different for younger children.

“With regard to the younger, 12 and up, we are in communication with the state health department, [which] will come up with a uniform consent form and best practice of how to ensure that parents are on board with their kids getting vaccinated,” Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said at a May 7 press conference. “That will be coming as soon as next week.”

The expansion of vaccine eligibility and plans for school-based clinics comes at the right time, as additional North Santa Barbara County high school students are back on campus this week. Santa Maria Joint Union High School District Public Information Officer Kenny Klein said in an email that the district received a request from the Public Health Department to set up vaccine clinics at schools.

“It’s under discussion in the midst of coming back,” Klein wrote.

The district announced that in addition to the seniors already back on campus, ninth graders had the option to be on campus starting May 11 at Santa Maria, Pioneer Valley, Righetti and Delta high schools. Tenth and 11th graders can return starting May 18. The district’s board of education voted to bring back all students under the hybrid model last week.

Students still have the option to stay fully distanced until the end of the school year, with the last day of school being June 10.

“We will assess the effectiveness of the hybrid model by the end of the year, after we have actually had students on campus for several weeks,’’ Superintendent Antonio Garcia said in a district statement. “We will continue to monitor the health and safety of students and staff, as well as our students’ learning and achievement in the hybrid model.” Δ

—Malea Martin

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Walk-ins now accepted at two SLO County COVID-19 vaccine clinics

Posted By on Tue, May 4, 2021 at 4:49 PM

Appointments will no longer be required at a couple of San Luis Obispo County’s COVID-19 vaccine clinics, as demand for the vaccine tapers.

On May 4, SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein announced the walk-in option for the county’s clinics at the Paso Robles fairgrounds and the South County Regional Center in Arroyo Grande.

“We have enough availability in the coming days and weeks [to accommodate it],” Borestein told the SLO County Board of Supervisors during a COVID-19 update. “We’re seeing demand at our mass clinics come down.”

GET THE SHOT SLO County is now allowing walk-ins at its Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande vaccine clinics. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • GET THE SHOT SLO County is now allowing walk-ins at its Paso Robles and Arroyo Grande vaccine clinics.
While residents may show up and receive a vaccine at any point during open clinic hours, she still encouraged locals to make appointments beforehand at myturn.ca.gov.

Borenstein added that the county is starting to look ahead to eventually scaling down its three vaccine clinics, as it expects the vaccine demand to continue to drop, mirroring a trend across the country.

“We’re really seeing a change in the demand,” she said. “Thus, our strategies are changing as well.”

SLO County’s clinics are still currently booked full with second shot appointments, but officials said the demand for first shot appointments has started to fall off. When the county does downsize its clinics, that process will likely happen gradually, according to Public Health Department spokesperson Michelle Shoresman.

“We won’t likely just all of a sudden shut down a site. We want to make sure that vaccine is available at all locations. But what we might do is scale back the number of [vaccination] days at each site,” Shoresman told New Times.

The next phase of the county vaccine campaign will be more targeted—trying to reach communities and populations that have lower vaccine rates with “surgical precision,” Borenstein said.

“[We’ll be] working hard to get to smaller venues where we need to bring the vaccine to populations,” Borenstein said.

As of April 30, SLO County Public Health had administered nearly 150,000 vaccine shots at its three clinics, with 64,444 people fully vaccinated. Roughly 23,000 more have been vaccinated through pharmacies and other providers.

According to a New York Times vaccine tracker, about 31 percent of the SLO County population is fully vaccinated—including 37 percent of adults and 62 percent of people 65 and older. ∆
—Peter Johnson

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Some Santa Maria high school seniors return to classroom

Posted By on Wed, Apr 21, 2021 at 4:08 PM

Santa Maria Joint Union High School District seniors returned to in-person learning for the first time in more than a year on April 20. Some students opted to continue distance learning through the end of the school year, and those who returned are on a hybrid model.

For now, only senior students at Pioneer Valley High School, Santa Maria High School, Ernest Righetti High School, and Delta High School have the option to be on-campus part time, and the model will be evaluated on a weekly basis to make sure things are operating safely and smoothly.

ROOMERS AND ZOOMERS With some Santa Maria Joint Union High School District seniors opting to return to campus while others are staying home, in-person students can see their virtual peers on their school-administered laptops. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SANTA MARIA JOINT UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF SANTA MARIA JOINT UNION HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT
  • ROOMERS AND ZOOMERS With some Santa Maria Joint Union High School District seniors opting to return to campus while others are staying home, in-person students can see their virtual peers on their school-administered laptops.
“We just wanted to see how it goes … to bring the students back in the safest way possible,” district Public Information Officer Kenny Klein said. “As the environment becomes safer, I’d like to have all the kids back, to give students an opportunity to come back, but when it’s safe to do so. We’re evaluating the ninth through 11th graders on a weekly basis for an opportunity to return.”

Klein said he is cautiously optimistic for the possibility, but can’t say for certain if other grade levels will be able to return to campus this school year, which ends on June 10. How things play out for the returning seniors will impact the district’s decisions for other grades down the road, he said.

Under the current hybrid model, all students are on Zoom on Mondays. Seniors who want to be on campus are broken up into two groups based on their last names, with half on campus Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the other half on campus Wednesdays and Fridays.

Klein said that Pioneer Valley, Santa Maria, and Righetti high schools each had roughly 170 to 200 seniors back on campus Tuesday, out of the 500 to 600 students in each school’s graduating class. Delta High School is much smaller, with about 200 total seniors this year.

“If the numbers were to stay the same today, then we would have nearly 400 of the 600 back,” Klein estimated for each of the three district high schools, indicating that about a third of students opted not to return to campus for the hybrid model. However, he said, these numbers could change over the upcoming weeks.

In one image shared by the district, in-person students attend class seated at least six feet apart on their tablet screens while the distance students attend via Zoom.

“I thought yesterday was very inspiring and promising at the campuses,” Klein said on April 21. “The kids were just so excited to see their friends, to talk to their teachers face to face. Even though the classroom sizes are smaller and they were separated out, they were just so happy.” Δ

—Malea Martin

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

SLO County moves to MyTurn for COVID-19 vaccine sign-ups

Posted By on Tue, Apr 20, 2021 at 3:33 PM

San Luis Obispo County will retire its COVID-19 vaccine registry and lottery system and start using the state’s MyTurn website for vaccine sign-ups starting on April 21.

TRANSITION SLO County will begin using the state’s MyTurn website for COVID-19 vaccine appointments starting April 21. - FILE IMAGE COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH
  • FILE IMAGE COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH
  • TRANSITION SLO County will begin using the state’s MyTurn website for COVID-19 vaccine appointments starting April 21.
Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein announced the change during a COVID-19 update to the Board of Supervisors on April 20. Borenstein said she’s comfortable transitioning the county to the statewide platform now, since many of the site’s early technical issues have been fixed.

“That [MyTurn] URL has been in place for quite some time—it just hasn’t been live for our county,” Borenstein said. “We basically didn’t want to be the first ones in.”

SLO County will schedule one more week of COVID-19 vaccine appointments through its old registry system before making the transition. Anyone who’s registered at recoverslo.org before 8 a.m. on April 21 will have an opportunity to schedule an appointment for next week, Borenstein said.

“As of today, people can still go into the system we’ve been using,” she said.

After that, locals will schedule their county vaccine appointments at myturn.ca.gov. The website is available in several languages and allows users to enter a zip code to find appointments nearby. The site also has links to pharmacies that are using their own websites for vaccine sign-ups.

“You always have the opportunity to call [the SLO County] phone assistance center if you need help,” Borenstein noted.

SLO’s transition to MyTurn means that a lottery will no longer be used to determine local vaccine recipients.

Over the nearly five months that it ran its own system, SLO County administered roughly 127,000 COVID-19 vaccine shots—which is about 70 percent of all the shots given to locals thus far. ∆

—Peter Johnson

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

SLO County’s vaccine lottery will still prioritize at-risk residents

Posted By on Wed, Apr 7, 2021 at 5:06 PM

Despite recently opening its COVID-19 vaccine lottery to any resident over age 16, San Luis Obispo County says it will continue to prioritize at-risk populations for appointments at its three clinics.

“Yes, SLO County will continue to make sure that community members who are [at the] highest risk of severe COVID-19 illness are next in line for appointments before newly-eligible residents,” said Michelle Shoresman, a spokesperson at the SLO County Public Health Department. “For example, an 80-year-old who signs up next week will be in line for an appointment ahead of a healthy 30-year-old who may have signed up this week but is still waiting for an appointment. It could take those who have a lower risk of serious outcomes anywhere from one to three weeks to get a vaccine appointment through our registry.”
SHOTS SLO County is now offering COVID-19 vaccines to any resident age 16 or older. - FILE GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • FILE GRAPHIC BY ALEX ZUNIGA
  • SHOTS SLO County is now offering COVID-19 vaccines to any resident age 16 or older.

SLO County Public Health expanded its COVID-19 vaccine program to roughly 54,000 more people on April 7 when it announced that residents 16 or older were eligible. While officials say they try to prioritize their lottery based on age and risk, in some cases they’re unsuccessful if a registrant chooses narrow preferences for the appointment date and time.

Starting on April 8, the county will select its weekly vaccine recipients and then ask them to self-schedule an appointment time and date—rather than using their stated preferences to automatically schedule it.

As of April 2, Public Health had surpassed 100,000 total shots administered—with 38,977 people fully vaccinated and 24,647 partially vaccinated. Countywide, including at pharmacies and other health providers, vaccine shots surpassed 150,000 on April 7.

Shoresman said that in addition to targeting at-risk groups, it’s also taking additional steps to reach out to populations adversely impacted by COVID-19, like the local Latino community.

“Initially, this has been through our weekly agriculture worker vaccine clinics in North and South County,” she said. “However, in the coming weeks, we will also be reaching out to other disadvantaged and adversely impacted groups around the county via ‘pop up’ and mobile [vaccine] clinics.”

Despite the recent surge in vaccine-eligible community members, Public Health does not have plans to pivot to the state’s MyTurn website for vaccine sign-ups.

“We continue to work with our current system, have made numerous improvements to that system, and will continue to monitor and make improvements as we are able,” Shoresman said. “Overall ... we get overwhelming positive feedback on the county vaccination process.” ∆

—Peter Johnson

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

SLO and Santa Barbara counties stay in red tier

Posted By on Wed, Mar 31, 2021 at 4:47 PM

While populated counties like Los Angeles entered into the orange tier of California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy on March 30, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties will stay put in the more restrictive red tier, at least for two more weeks.
STUCK Central Coast counties, including SLO, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Monterey, will stay in the state’s red tier for reopening for at least two more weeks. - IMAGE FROM CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH
  • IMAGE FROM CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH
  • STUCK Central Coast counties, including SLO, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Monterey, will stay in the state’s red tier for reopening for at least two more weeks.

SLO and Santa Barbara reported weekly COVID-19 case rates on March 30 of 6.9 and 5.3 per 100,000 residents, respectively—missing the orange tier threshold of four cases per 100,000 residents. Eight counties, including LA and Orange, moved into the orange tier Tuesday thanks to lower rates.

In the orange tier, counties can reopen outdoor entertainment venues, along with non-essential offices, indoor pools, bars and wineries without food, and more sectors. Businesses, like restaurants, may also increase indoor capacity.

In SLO County, COVID-19 case numbers are plateauing after sharp declines in February and part of March. The county reported 42 new cases on March 30—above its recent daily average of 26 cases. Hospitalizations are still low, with only four COVID-19 patients in local hospitals, including one in the ICU.

Michelle Shoresman, a public information officer with SLO County Public Health, told New Times that the county’s lack of movement in reopening also has to do in part with declining testing numbers.

“We benefited from extremely high testing rates in our county,” Shoresman said via email. “We had some of the highest testing rates in the state and therefore, our ‘adjustment factor’ kept our adjusted case rate (used for tier standings in the State’s Blueprint) significantly lower than our real case rate.

“Since we are no longer benefiting from such high testing rates,” she continued, “our real case rate is now much closer to our adjusted case rate, similar to other counties. However, their case rates have continued to drop and we have not yet seen ours do that.”

Shoresman said it’s important for residents to try to avoid spreading COVID-19 and to get tested if they aren’t feeling well or may have had close contact.

“We need to continue to urge our SLO County residents to do all the same things we have been urging all along,” she said. “Please wear a mask in public, stay six feet away from others, stay home if you are sick, wash your hands frequently and avoid gatherings unless they are brief, outside, small, and symptom-free.”

Santa Barbara County, after having higher case rates than SLO County for most of the past few months, is now seeing a steady decline in cases, and had fewer active cases (192) than SLO (234) on March 30. Of those active cases, Santa Maria accounted for the most, at 50 cases. ∆

—Peter Johnson

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

SLO County sees increase in no-shows for vaccine appointments

Posted By on Tue, Mar 23, 2021 at 7:42 PM

Editor's note: SLO County is not currently providing unscheduled vaccinations at its clinics at the end of the day despite the increased number of missed appointments.

More and more people are skipping their scheduled COVID-19 vaccine appointments, according to the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department, as officials plead with residents to call ahead if they need to cancel so that others can take their spot.
CALL AHEAD A growing number of people are missing their COVID-19 vaccine appointments. SLO County is encouraging residents to call ahead if they need to cancel. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • CALL AHEAD A growing number of people are missing their COVID-19 vaccine appointments. SLO County is encouraging residents to call ahead if they need to cancel.

County officials say that the number of “no-shows” at their three vaccine clinics has grown to as high as 20 percent of all appointments over the past few weeks, equaling thousands of doses.

While no doses are being “wasted,” according to the county, it creates unpredictability and inefficiency in administering the vaccine.

“We want to maximize our utilization of doses,” SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein said at a March 17 press briefing, “and when we see the kind of no-show rates we’re having … those are doses that are sitting in the refrigerator when they could’ve gone into other peoples’ arms.”

Borenstein attributed the rise in no-shows to the growing number of pharmacies and health providers that are offering the vaccine. Residents registered in the county’s new vaccine lottery system are finding appointments elsewhere while they wait to be selected. Then when they are selected, they no longer need that appointment slot.

Residents who need to cancel their vaccine appointments at the county can do so by calling (805) 543-2444 or emailing publichealth.covidvaccine@co.slo.ca.us. That opens up an appointment slot for someone else in the system.

Despite the no-shows, SLO County claims that it’s managed to not waste vaccine supply. At the end of each day, Borenstein said that her clinics are tracking down eligible community members to vaccinate.

“We initially did so with some high-risk county employees. We then used folks available on the radio—law enforcement, fire personnel. We’ve had food sector personnel,” Borenstein said.

Public Health spokesperson Michelle Shoresman added that the clinics also have some flexibility in how they line up vaccine doses each day so they can be adjusted based on demand.

“We draw up vaccine throughout the day based on the number of appointments we have, and adjust vial-by-vial as we near the end of each day,” Shoresman said.

The county is also overbooking some appointments to make up for “a fairly predictable 10 percent no-show rate.”

Some locals who are still ineligible for a vaccine have clamored for the county to start a lottery system for those unused doses. It’s an idea that Borenstein said presents a logistical challenge but that her office will consider.

“Managing a separate system for end-of-day doses, where we really need for people to be available by text within 15 minutes, has proven to be a real challenge for staff on the ground,” Borenstein said. “We’ll be looking at that as more and more these sectors get themselves vaccinated through appointment.” ∆
—Peter Johnson

Monday, March 22, 2021

First case of a COVID-19 variant reported in SLO County

Posted By on Mon, Mar 22, 2021 at 5:42 PM

On March 19, the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department reported the county's first positive case of the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19, also known as the United Kingdom (U.K.) variant because it was first identified there.

COVID VARIANT SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein reported the county's first case of the U.K. variant of COVID-19 on March 19. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • COVID VARIANT SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein reported the county's first case of the U.K. variant of COVID-19 on March 19.
The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) notified SLO County on March 18 that a resident had tested positive for the variant.

According to a press release, the individual completed their isolation period and the Public Health Department deemed them as no longer infectious.

No other cases of the variant have been identified in SLO County.

In the press release, SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein said the end of the pandemic is close but that community cooperation is needed to get there.

“Continue to wear your mask in public, stay physically distanced from those who don’t live with you, get tested for COVID-19, and get vaccinated against COVID-19 if you are eligible. These actions will continue to protect you from spreading the variants,” she said.

According to Public Health, the vaccines available in the United States “appear to remain effective against severe impacts of COVID-19, even against variants."

The CDPH issued a health alert warning in February about the increasing cases of COVID-19 variants in the U.S. The department identified “variants of concern,” including the UK variant; B.1.135, which was identified in South Africa; and the P.1 variant that emerged from Brazil.

Santa Barbara County’s Public Health Department also recently reported two residents who tested positive for the U.K. variant. The department said the cases were unrelated and neither case was caused by traveling abroad. ∆

—Karen Garcia
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