Thanks to falling numbers of new infections, coronavirus pandemic response restrictions for San Luis Obispo County have been lightened up, prompting the County to close down an emergency hospital at Cal Poly and return the building to the students.

And the County Health Department continues to give COVID-19 vaccinations including restarting administration of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine after halting its use over concerns of a serious side effect that turned out to not be too serious of a problem.

County in the Orange Now

After months in the “Red Tier” the second most restrictive level of restrictions under the Governor’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” SLO County was dropped into the less-restrictive “Orange Tier” as of 8 a.m. Wednesday, April 28.

The Orange Tier “Allows counties,” the County Health Department said, “to reopen indoor operations for some additional business sectors and allows for certain activities to resume.”

Among the easing is that restaurants are now allowed to have indoor seating of 50% (up from 25%) or 200 whichever is fewer. Fitness centers can reopen indoor workouts at 25% capacity and wineries and breweries with food services can reopen indoors at 25% capacity.

Churches and other places of worship can now have indoor services with 50% capacity, according to the County Health Department. Bars without food service still can’t open but can serve patrons outdoors under certain restrictions.

Movie theaters can now go to 50% capacity or a maximum of 200 people.And museums, zoos and aquariums can open at 50% capacity.

Though one might like to take a moment and perhaps breathe a sigh of relief, the County Health Officer is warning against it.

Dr. Penny Borenstein said, “We cannot lose sight of the end goal. To fully restore health to our community, we must remain vigilant: get vaccinated against COVID-19, maintain personal safety measures, and get tested if you have symptoms so we can beat this thing.”

Cal Poly Hospital Dismantled

With the coronavirus pandemic seemingly on the wane locally, the County decided it was OK to take down an emergency hospital it set up last year at Cal Poly.

“We hoped we would never have to use the ACS [Alternative Care Site] but were prepared for the worst,” County Administrative Officer Wade Horton said. “It’s a relief to say that we no longer need an ACS for our community and that, even during the surge in COVID-19 cases here this past winter, our hospitals were able to provide the quality care our community members needed.”

The County spent $1 million buying equipment and getting the Cal Poly Rec Center building set up as a field hospital, able to handle hundreds of very sick patients.

They spent another $3.5 million for medical supplies and equipment, according to Tara Kennon who is with the County’s COVID-19 Public Information Team. Most of those costs were covered with Federal reimbursements and Kennon said it wasn’t wasted effort and money.

“The site,” she said, “served several other critical functions: More than 250 Medical Reserve Corps volunteers were trained to staff the site and have since put that training to use for a far brighter purpose — providing vaccines to their fellow community members. The site was also used to store supplies, like ventilators and PPE, which were provided to hospitals as they battled the pandemic.”

Though it proved in the end to not be needed to handle what was feared to be an overflow of COVID-19 patients, it was good training for future pandemics.

“The ACS at Cal Poly,” the County said, “was meant to relieve local hospitals by caring for patients who were too sick to care for themselves at home but did not need acute care provided at the hospital.

“The County partnered with Cal Poly, Dignity Health, Tenet Healthcare and RRM at the start of the pandemic in March 2020 to quickly transform the Cal Poly Recreation Center into an alternate care site for COVID-19 patients. Local contractors included Trust Automation, Thoma Electric, McCall Plumbing and others, who quickly answered the call to ‘stand up’ the facility.”

Vaccinations Set Record

On April 23, the County did a little back patting about its vaccination efforts.

“More than one in every 100 SLO County residents received a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine yesterday at one of three County mass vaccination clinics,” a news release announced. “The County’s clinics in Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo administered 3,144 vaccines, the most in a single day since the County began providing COVID-19 vaccine in December.”

From April 19-23 the County said its three sites provided 10,957 vaccines and a total of 137,805 to date. Vaccinations are also being done at pharmacies and health clinics and the County estimated about 48% of all County residents (estimated pop. 231,000) had been given at least one dose (some vaccines require two shots taken a month apart).

The County made a couple of other changes to its vaccine protocols — first expanded the eligible age groups down to anyone 16 older and then by switching to the State’s vaccination appointment system, myturn.ca.gov.

The County closed its own registration system “recoverslo.org” in favor of the State’s system. Readers who want to make an appointment for the vaccine through the County need to do so through myturn.ca.gov or call (833) 422-4255.

My Turn is a web-based application available through a computer, smart phone or tablet.

Anyone without Internet should call the State’s COVID-19 hotline at 1-833-422-4255 for appointment assistance Mondays-Fridays, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., or Saturdays-Sundays 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

And if you don’t speak English, My Turn is available in a dozen languages — Armenian, English, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog, Traditional Chinese, and Vietnamese. The COVID-19 hotline is staffed by agents who speak English and Spanish and has a real-time language translation service that supports over 250 other languages.

Airport Starts Testing

Visitors flying into the SLO Airport can get a rapid COVID test in lieu of potentially spending time in quarantine.

SLO County announced that as of May 2, Templeton-based Nova Labs, LLC, would set up at the airport terminal to administer tests for $100 to inbound and outbound travelers, as well as airport personnel.

“While more Americans are getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, many counties, states, and foreign countries still require proof of negative COVID-19 tests prior to arrival,” the County said. “The SLO airport will offer two types of testing: a Molecular RT-LAMP saliva test with results available in 4 hours and a Molecular PCR test, with results available within 48 hours.

“Travelers may choose their test based on requirements at their destination, their travel schedule, or their personal comfort level.”

How it works is that “passengers with an arriving or departing airline ticket may upload the required personal information, book a COVID-19 testing appointment, and then receive test results directly from Nova Labs. Testing will be available in the airport terminal from Sundays–Fridays, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.”

For updates on COVID-19 in SLO County, see: ReadySLO.org or call the recorded Public Health Information Line at (805) 788-2903. A staffed phone assistance center at (805) 543-2444 is available Mondays-Fridays, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., to assist with COVID-19 questions.