Cases Surging; County Orders Return to Masking

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

September 10, 2021

The San Luis Obispo County Health Department, citing a surge in coronavirus cases, has once again ordered everyone to wear a facemask when indoors, auspiciously to slow the spread and keep local hospitals from filling up.

In an Aug. 31 news release, SLO County Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein said, “This surge is stretching our local health care system too close to the breaking point and if it continues, we risk losing our ability to care for people with common conditions like heart attacks, broken bones or even cancer. We cannot let that happen.”

So she issued a commandment to return to mask wearing, with the orders taking effect at 12:01 a.m. Sept. 1, and applying to everyone, even those who are vaccinated. She also reinstated the 6-foot social distancing measure that was employed when the pandemic started in April 2020.

At the time there were 67 people in area hospitals with 20 in intensive care (ICU). According to the County that’s the most people here that have been hospitalized in the ICU with COVID-19  at any one time. 

During August, the County said, there were 3,543 reported cases and 18 people died. As a comparison, in June, the County said there were 163 new cases and zero deaths.

Masks Make it Easy to Avoid the Virus

Even though mask wearing has had debatable results, short of actually getting vaccinated, the County said it’s an easy way to avoid the virus.

“While vaccines remain the most effective tool against COVID-19,” the County news release said, “universal indoor masking is the least disruptive and most immediately impactful additional measure to curb the spread of the virus and reduce intense pressure on the health care system.”

“Getting vaccinated as a community is our ticket out of hospital surges, out of this increasing drumbeat of preventable deaths, out of restrictions like masking requirements,” said Dr. Borenstein. “Today, we must take this step of putting on our masks to stop the surge and protect our community. As we look ahead, I implore you to protect yourself and your family with the vaccine.”

The mask order applies to “all indoor public settings, venues, gatherings and workplaces,” such as retail stores, restaurants and bars, fitness centers, theaters, museums, personal care services, family entertainment centers, conference centers and government offices that serve the public.

Businesses are directed to require all patrons to wear face coverings “for all indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status.” They must also post the mask requirements in clearly visible and easy-to-read signage at all entry points for indoor settings, “to communicate the masking requirements to all patrons.”

Exemptions Are Few

The masking order has few exemptions. You don’t have to wear a mask if you are working alone in an office; are eating or drinking; are swimming or showering at the gym; you may remove your mask for medical procedures, like going to the dentist, but only temporarily; and, if you fall under the State Department of Public Health’s list of exemptions, which might include “students, and other persons with medical or behavioral contradictions.”

County Blaming Unvaccinated for Surge

County Health is laying the blame for the surge in cases — driven by the so-called Delta variant a mutated version of the original virus — on people who haven’t gotten vaccinated.

“The large majority of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths reported in San Luis Obispo County,” the Health Department said on Aug. 31, “continue to be among residents who are not yet fully vaccinated.” The County said its data shows that since June 15, “residents who are not fully vaccinated have represented 77% of cases, 86% of hospitalizations and 79% of deaths.”

From Aug. 27-31, the County said they recorded 592 news cases of COVID-19 and three deaths. There were some 1,703 “active cases” and 67 people in the hospital. SLO County has about 233,000 residents.

And the spike, unfortunately, appears to be driven by unvaccinated people, but some who’ve gotten their shots are getting sick too.

“We are seeing some ‘breakthrough’ cases,” Dr. Borenstein said, “in which those who are fully vaccinated become infected with the virus and even cases in which a vulnerable fully-vaccinated person has become severely ill — but these numbers pale in comparison to the vast majority of cases among those who are not yet vaccinated. We would not be facing extreme demands on our hospitals if we were looking at only the small number of mostly mild cases among those who have been vaccinated.”

Hospitalizations Drop a Bit

By Sept. 3, the County’s count of new cases had dropped somewhat, but remain high in comparison to just a couple of months ago. 

On Sept. 3, the County said there were 59 people in the hospital with 17 in the ICU. Estero Bay News asked the County what happened to the three people no longer listed in the ICU and was told they don’t follow up on whether an ICU patient recovered or died.

Dr. Borenstein doubled down on urging people to get vaccinated to avoid the horrible effects of the disease. “None of us want our family, friends or neighbors to experience that,” she said, “which is why we must all do our part to slow the spread: get vaccinated, wear a mask indoors, avoid crowded places, wash your hands, don’t go out if you aren’t feeling well, and get tested if you experience symptoms.”

According to the County, August’s case numbers are comparable to what they were seeing last February, about 142 per day over a 14-day period.

Shots, Tests Widely Available

The fight against the pandemic nationwide took a turn Aug. 24, when the Federal Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, elevating it from an “emergency use” designation. 

Officials hope that will ease fears many people have had — that the vaccines are “experimental” and not trustworthy. Pfizer’s vaccine is the first to get full FDA approval, and over 204 million people nationwide have already gotten the 2-dose Pfizer vaccine, according to the County.

The FDA decision “comes after an extensive review of preclinical and clinical data on the vaccine, as well as details of the manufacturing process, vaccine quality testing, and inspections of the vaccine manufacturing sites,” according to the County.

The Pfizer shots are one of three in wide use in the U.S. and the others are made by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson (a single dose vaccine).

The County offers free vaccinations by appointment at its public health clinics in SLO, Paso Robles and Grover Beach. Many local private clinics and doctor’s offices give them as well as pharmacies like Morro Bay Drug & Gift, which recently started giving rapid COVID tests as well. See: myturn.ca.gov or call (833) 422-4255 to schedule an appointment at a County Health Clinic. They also take walk-in patients. 

Current County Scorecard

With the surge of the coronavirus’ Delta variant, and County Health ringing the alarm bell, the virus’ rampage through SLO County continues.

As of Sept. 3, according to the County’s database (see: www.emergencyslo.org/en/covid19), there were 1,468 active cases countywide with 59 people in the hospital, and 17 in ICU, numbers that include SLO County residents at outside hospitals, like Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria.

SLO County has recorded 26,143 COVID cases since April 2020. Some 24,380 people recovered and 284 are listed as dying from COVID-19.

People 85-older have had 118 people hospitalized and 130 deaths. Those 65-84 had 362 hospitalized and 106 deaths.

People 50-64 had 256 hospitalized and 39 deaths. People 30-49 had 172 hospitalized and eight deaths. And those from 18-29 have had 44 hospitalizations and only one person has died. 

SLO County residents under-18 have had just 12 hospitalized and so far, no one under-18 has died, according to the County.

Readers can get COVID-19 vaccinations by appointment at a Public Health clinic in Paso Robles, Grover Beach, or San Luis Obispo, see: myturn.ca.gov or call (833) 422-4255. To find other vaccine providers, see: myturn.ca.gov or VaccineFinder.org.

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