San Luis Obispo County deaths from COVID-19 have continued to climb, jumping from nine on July 24 to 17 on Aug. 11 and also growing in the County Jail as a fifth Sheriff’s deputy tested positive for the virus.

According to a Sheriff’s Department news release, the deputy started showing symptoms on July 23, “while in quarantine at home for a known exposure to a person with COVID-19.” The bad news came back 2-days later. “That now makes a total of five Sheriff’s Deputies who have tested positive for the virus: three Correctional Deputies and two Patrol Deputies. Four are recovering at home and one has returned to work.”

As for guests at the iron bar hotel, “the total number of inmates who have tested positive remains at four.”

According to guidelines from the Health Department the outbreak at the jail would be declared over when there are no new cases in 14 days from the date of the last positive test, July 22.

The Sheriff’s Office monitors all staff for symptoms of COVID-19 at least once per shift. Anyone with symptoms is isolated and tested. Inmates who have been exposed to the virus are quarantined and monitored.

County Needs Help Tracing

The County Health Department has put a call out to people who’ve tested positive for the coronavirus to answer the phone and cooperate with its effort to trace exposure.

“Together we can slow the spread of COVID-19 in SLO County” County Public Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein said on July 24. “You can help keep SLO County healthy, open and strong by literally answering the call.

“There are positive cases in our community who are not answering our phone calls nor are they calling us back. We are counting on people who recently got tested for COVID-19 to answer the phone and speak with one of our public health officials so that we can all slow the spread.”

Anyone who tests positive and cannot be reached via phone or text message, will receive a letter in the mail from the County Public Health Department requiring them to isolate at home, the County said.

“Our team respects your privacy,” Dr. Borenstein said. “We cannot legally share your personal information with others or with other governmental agencies. If you have tested positive, we will call you and ask how you are doing, issue isolation orders, and help connect you with care and services, if needed. Answer the call and help us slow transmission.”

Gatherings A Problem

The County is warning everyone to avoid social gatherings, even family get-togethers and celebrations.

“More cases in SLO County are tied to members of several different households getting together with others through parties, celebrations, and other in-person social gatherings,” said Dr. Borenstein. “Protect your friends and family by avoiding gatherings. I know this is a difficult ask, but it is a key way we can help slow the spread of COVID-19 to keep SLO County healthy, open and strong as this pandemic continues.”

Tracers have identified cases spread at holiday gatherings, birthday parties, graduation parties, and other medium or small-sized gatherings, but haven’t traced cases back to the numerous public demonstrations with hundreds of people that have been held since June 1.

The nature of these social gatherings — bringing together people from multiple households for a prolonged time, often indoors or with shared food and beverages — create an environment where COVID-19 can easily and quickly spread, according to the County.

“Nobody wants to infect loved ones,” Dr. Borenstein said, “but it’s happening in SLO County. We each have the ability to stop it and slow the spread of this disease. Staying in touch and celebrating life events is still important. But now is not the time to gather in person, especially if you are or someone you know is particularly vulnerable to serious COVID-19 illness.”

Majority of Deaths Are Elderly People

The County’s deaths from COVID continue to be elderly people in poor health. And the new deaths have been traced to outbreaks in North County elder care facilities.

Deaths Nos. 9-16 were all elderly patients with underlying health conditions, and No. 9, a person in his or her 70s, is believed to have caught the virus while on a trip, according to the County.

“The patient had been hospitalized for more than 2 weeks beginning about a week after taking a trip out of state,” the County said.

The 10th and 11th deaths were in their 80s with health issues, too. “Both residents lived at Vineyard Hills Health Center, a skilled nursing facility in Templeton that is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19 among residents and staff. Three residents and one former resident of the facility have died due to COVID-19 since the outbreak began.” Death No. 12 was also over 80 and lived at Vineyard Hills.

The 13th and 14th deaths were in their 80s and one lived at a care facility in Atascadero; and the other lived at Vineyard Hills, and had been hospitalized for just a few days. He or she became the fifth death at Vineyard Hills, according to the County.

No. 15 was over 100-years old and lived at another “congregate care facility” that is in the midst of an outbreak. The 16th person to die was in their sixties and had chronic health conditions.

UPDATE: A 17th death was reported on August 11. They were in their 90s and vulnerable to serious illness due to chronic health conditions

Testing Continues

With the number of cases slowly climbing and now topping 2,254 since April 1, the County continues with its testing program, opening a site in Atascadero.

The Atascadero pop-up testing site is located at the Atascadero Lake Pavilion, 9315 Pismo Ave., off Hwy 41. It will be open Mondays-Thursdays, through Aug. 20 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The County also has two permanent testing sites — in Grover Beach at Ramona Garden Park, 993 Ramona Ave.; and the Vet’s Hall, 801 Grand Ave., in SLO. Both are open Mondays-Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“If you are experiencing symptoms or are a contact of a known case, please get tested and then isolate yourself to avoid potentially spreading the illness while you await the results,” said Dr. Borenstein. “While testing continues to be a somewhat limited resource, we are happy to be able to provide this new testing option for the community. Our sites in Grover Beach and Atascadero now have a lot of testing appointments available.” Private clinics such as the Urgent Care in Morro Bay also do COVID testing by appointment.

Testing through the County is available at no cost to patients. For those with health insurance, information will be collected when registering for an appointment for billing purposes, but no co-pay is required.

Make an appointment online at: EmergencySLO.org/testing.

Schools Could Reopen

With the school year fast approaching, the Health Department and County Superintendent of Schools have asked districts to apply for a waiver, so local school kids can go back to the classroom.

County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. James Brescia and Dr. Borenstein sent a joint letter to local elementary school leaders July 29 letting them know how to apply for a waiver through the County Health Department.

Kids Not At Great Risk Dr. Borenstein doesn’t think kids are at too great a risk. “COVID-related risks in schools serving elementary age students are different from the risks to staff and students in schools serving older students,” said Dr. Borenstein. “There appears to be a lower risk of child-to-child or child-to-adult transmission in children under 12-years old, and the risk of infection and serious illness in elementary school children is considered low.”

The County acknowledged the mounting frustration over who’s getting sick and dying contrasted with a blanket shelter-at-home order and business closures that are placing a lot of economic pressure on everyone.

“I empathize with the frustration people feel,” COVID-19 spokeswoman Michelle Shoresman told EBN, “wanting to pinpoint exactly why the virus is spreading. Unfortunately, it points back to all of us. We are all part of the problem and solution.”

The original directions for fighting the virus remain. “We all need to take precautions each day to slow the spread including: staying home when sick, wearing a face covering in public, washing our hands frequently, staying 6 feet from others, and not gathering with those we care about who live outside our households. [I know this last one is the hardest.]” Shoresman said. “Healthier, less affected individuals [who contract the virus] coming in contact with more vulnerable individuals is what puts them at risk.”

Meanwhile, in Morro Bay the City has launched another public information campaign — “Be a Face Mask Hero” — designed to get everyone to wear a mask and offering a prize to those who do.
“The campaign encourages residents and visitors to be a hero by wearing face mask coverings in Morro Bay,” reads a news release on the campaign. “Wearing a mask demonstrates kindness, humility, and respect for others by helping to protect one another and be part of the solution. City public safety staff will be handing out stickers and other swag items to visitors and residents that they see wearing a face covering and thanking them for being a hero in our community.”

To keep up with the County’s COVID-19 news releases, 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 answer questions related to COVID-19.