San Luis Obispo County blew past a grisly milestone in the coronavirus pandemic, even as reported daily cases dropped to double digits for the first time in months, and health officials push on with a vaccination program hampered by supply issues.
County Reaches 200 Deaths
“The County of San Luis Obispo,” reads a Feb. 9 news release from the County Health Department, “regrets to report today that 200 SLO County community members have died due to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.”
County Health Officer, Dr. Penny Borenstein, offered condolences. “Our deepest condolences go out to the families and friends who are grieving the loss of a loved one. These are 200 individuals in our county who lost their lives from a preventable disease.”
The worldwide trend of elderly people being hit hardest by COVID-19 shows plainly in SLO County.
“Of the 200 people who have passed away,” the County said, “102 were community members over the age of 85. Additionally, 74 deaths were from community members, ages 65 to 84. The focus remains on vaccinating these most vulnerable community members first.”
Vaccine Supply Issues
The County’s vaccine program has had to dole out the serum much slower than the “Vaccine Task Force” would like.
Nevertheless, on Feb. 10, the County opened up appointments to get the first of two shots to anyone 65-older. Trouble was they didn’t have a lot of vaccine on hand.
The County started taking appointments for the new age group, on Feb. 11 on a limited basis and prompting County officials to ask for a sacrifice.
Dr. Borenstein said, “Because we have a very limited number of vaccine doses right now, please let those most at risk for exposure and serious health outcomes get an appointment first if you can safely continue to shelter at home to reduce your risk of exposure. Everyone in SLO County will have a chance to get vaccinated against COVID-19, but those at higher risk should get their shot first.”
Demand is Huge
There are over 38,000 SLO County residents ages 65-74 but on Feb. 18 the County could only offer about 3,200 appointments, and only at the SLO clinic at Cuesta College.
It was able to administer 5,000, second doses spread over all three clinics — Cuesta, Paso Fairgrounds, and at the Clark Center at Arroyo Grande High School.
The County opened up those shot slots at 9 a.m. and they were all filled almost immediately.
On Feb. 19, the County announced it had received another shipment of the vaccine and was opening up an additional 1,500 first-dose appointments at the Paso Robles site, administered in just two days.
“These appointments will likely fill quickly,” the County said. The quick sellout signals a high demand amongst the population.
County, Cities Sign Agreement
The County realized that vaccinating everyone was simply beyond it capabilities and so the seven cities in SLO County plus the South County Fire Authority entered into an agreement to work together, sharing costs and reimbursements.
In a Feb. 9 action, County Supervisors approved the “Vaccine Assistance Agreement.”
“The timing and scale of the county-wide vaccination effort was determined to exceed the operational capacity of the County,” reads a report from Guy Savage of the County Administration Office. “The Agreement outlines eligible versus non-eligible costs for reimbursement and the process by which the County will provide reimbursement to participating agencies.”
The fire departments are to play a key role. “City and Authority support,” the report said, “will primarily come through the use of their respective fire department personnel. In some cases, cities will also provide on-site administrative support for vaccination efforts.”
County to Seek FEMA Funding
The County agreed to seek funding through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA for all COVID-related expenses.
“As stated in the Agreement, should the County receive funds via FEMA, or other State or Federal sources,” the report said, “those reimbursements will be shared with the cities or Authority. Moving forward, additional agreements with parties such as Community Service Districts may be needed to maximize reimbursement from State or Federal government agencies.”
The first sign of the cooperation was establishing the vaccination clinics, which have been organized through a task force, with volunteers like Morro Bay Mayor John Headding, a pharmacist, pitching in.
“While each of the sites is capable of administering 1,000 vaccinations per day,” the report said, “smaller numbers of vaccinations are occurring due to a lack of vaccine.
“When operating on a five-day-a-week schedule, the three vaccination sites should be capable of administering a combined 15,000 shots on a weekly basis. Assuming sufficient vaccine supply, these 15,000 vaccinations would be in addition to those administered through others, such as pharmacies, doctors, or medical clinics.”
Back in December, the Federal Government appropriated $4.5 billion to aid in the vaccine rollout. President Biden’s new COVID relief package being debated in Congress is expected to add to that funding, and, “Governor Newsom’s proposed state budget for FY 2021-22 includes $350 million for State-sponsored vaccine distribution efforts.”
PG&E Extends Assistance Program
Pacific Gas & Electric extended a program that stopped people and businesses from having their electric and gas service shut off for non-payment.
“In response to the ongoing economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pacific Gas and Electric Company said today it will extend the existing COVID 19 customer protections through June 30, 2021. The protections were set to expire on April 16.”
With the blessing of the Public Utilities Commission, the company also suspended re-enrollment requirements for its “California Alternate Rates for Energy Program” (CARE); waived security deposits for small commercial customers; and, eased rules on a program that gives discounts to people with medical conditions by dropping a requirement that they be re-certified by a doctor. The waiver is good for one year.
PG&E also has flexible payment plans and a budget billing system to spread out energy costs and avoid unexpected high bills.
There are other discount and assistance programs, as well as programs that help weatherize homes and cut bills. See: pge.com/billhelp for information about these programs.
COVID Numbers Look Better
SLO County’s new cases saw a steady drop over the past couple of weeks, and fell to just 57 in its Feb. 19 report. Daily numbers have been in the hundreds since early last summer.
As of Feb. 19, the County reported 19,340 total COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started in March 2020. There were 706 active cases and 18,395 people have recovered from the virus.
The death toll had also climbed to 217, with 111 people ages 85-older representing the most deaths, but that might not be the whole story.
According to County health officials, “22 additional community members are likely to have died from COVID-19, but local health officials have not yet confirmed whether those deaths were in fact caused by COVID-19.”
County Says it’s No Time to Relax
The dropping numbers locally may be a promising sign, but County officials say it’s not the time to tap the brakes on prevention efforts.
“I ask of you, as I always do,” Dr. Borenstein said, “to not ease up on the gas pedal at this point. We have a vaccine, but supply is limited. Wear your mask, keep your distance, limit indoor social gatherings to your social bubble and help stop the COVID-19 deaths in our county.”
SLO County remains in the Purple Tier, signaling widespread infections under the Governor’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.”
But such evaluations are re-calculated weekly, so with the drop in new cases, it’s possible SLO County’s status could be upgraded soon.
The County’s COVID website continues to be the best place for information on everything from testing, to vaccine appointments and more. See: www.ReadySLO.org.