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SLO County braces for the novel coronavirus 

click to enlarge SOLD OUT Emergency supplies like toilet paper are stripped off many local store shelves, like Target’s in San Luis Obispo, as locals prepare for the novel coronavirus. - PHOTO BY ANDREA ROOKS
  • SOLD OUT Emergency supplies like toilet paper are stripped off many local store shelves, like Target’s in San Luis Obispo, as locals prepare for the novel coronavirus.

Editor's Note: This article was published on March 12 before several recent developments, including local school and event closures. Please visit for official announcements.

As the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) climbs to above 150 in California, San Luis Obispo County health officials warn that it's likely only a matter of time until SLO County joins the growing list of jurisdictions impacted by the novel virus.

"It's a near certainty we'll have lab-confirmed cases in the near term," said Penny Borenstein, SLO County's public health officer, on March 9.

The SLO County Public Health Department has begun testing sick individuals who meet the federal criteria for COVID-19 testing. Borenstein declined to share on March 9 how many locals have been tested.

"We are doing some testing. We've decided we're not going to report [to the media] how many," she said. "We've committed to let the public know if and when we get our first case."

On March 6, SLO County Public Health received its first COVID-19 testing kit from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), so county officials are able to test patients locally and receive results back within 24 hours.

The county has received just one testing kit from the CDC, which can accommodate 300 to 350 unique tests. Each patient requires at least two tests, so that means the county has the capacity to test about 150 people.

Borenstein said she believes that more kits will be made available as distribution ramps up.

"My understanding is the supply chain of test kits has completely opened," Borenstein said. "We are told that private labs are going to begin testing this week. That would also significantly increase testing capacity."

In recent days, public health officials have been in hourly communication with local physicians and hospitals, discussing various cases that could require coronavirus testing. Because it's also standard flu season, Borenstein said that's been a challenging landscape to navigate.

The CDC sets specific criteria that a patient must meet before they are tested. For weeks, the CDC required that a patient must have either recently traveled to a country where the virus exists or had known contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus. Those parameters have since loosened up—the criteria now also allows testing for someone "with a significant illness for whom other diagnoses have been ruled out," Borenstein said.

SLO County is additionally monitoring people who are re-entering the area after having traveled internationally. Travelers returning to the U.S. from China or Iran are required to be screened at major ports of entry, including SFO and LAX airports. If someone is exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, they are not allowed to proceed to their final destination. If they aren't showing symptoms, they can return, but their local public health department is notified, and that traveler is then monitored locally for 14 days.

Borenstein said that travelers from other high-risk countries, like Italy, are also monitored locally "if we learn of them through other means."

SLO County confirmed to The Tribune on March 5 that it had at least one instance of a negative test for coronavirus. Borenstein told New Times that that individual had self-reported to health officials after coming into contact with travelers from an area with widespread transmission of the virus. Out of an abundance of caution, the county tested that individual.

"We went ahead and did testing even though [due to] the timing and nature, we had a low suspicion" of a positive test, she said.

Since its initial outbreak in the Wuhan, Hubei province of China, the coronavirus has spread to 121 countries with more than 121,000 reported cases and 4,000 deaths. The U.S. has reported more than 1000 cases and 31 deaths as of March 11.

While, as of press time, there were no confirmed COVID-19 cases in SLO, Monterey, or Santa Barbara counties, Borenstein said it's "not unreasonable" to think that the virus is already on the Central Coast.

People experiencing flulike symptoms—fever, cough, and shortness of breath—should stay home to recover. If symptoms are severe, they should call their health care provider to consult before going into a hospital or clinic. Local hospitals are "experiencing high volumes of patients currently" due to flu season and COVID-19 fears, according to the county, and the "patient surge impedes" hospitals' capacity to provide urgent care.

Borenstein said average residents should take precautionary measures to prevent germ-spreading—like washing hands frequently, avoiding touching eyes, nose, or mouth, and avoiding contact with people who are sick.

Higher risk individuals—people over age 50 and people with pre-existing health issues—should "take an extra measure of care" in terms of social distancing and reaching out to a doctor early if symptoms develop.

The county has yet to recommend any school closures, event cancellations, or other major disruptions to day-to-day life, but Borenstein said employers should be "thinking about plans that, should the situation get dramatically worse, help employees change their work setting."

With local residents clearing out grocery and bulk-goods store shelves of emergency and cleaning supplies like bottled water, hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, rubbing alcohol, and toilet paper, Borenstein asked community members to take a "measured approach" to preparedness.

"We don't see a need to have people have two weeks of supplies and buy out the whole community supply," she said. "Reasonable amounts of that type of preparedness and preventative supply are [advised], but we don't at this time envision a complete shutdown of society as we know it." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at


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