After watching the slow but steadily increasing number of COVID-19 cases in the Tri-Counties, we are left with a single question: Is San Luis Obispo County an emerging hot spot for coronavirus or is it a harbinger of things to come?
As coronavirus numbers have risen past the 100 mark across the region, SLO County has been posting far higher numbers on a key metric, infections per 100,000 people. At press time, SLO County has 42 infections or about 1.5 per 100,000 given its population of roughly 283,000. And the rate of those infections has been doubling every three or four days.
Santa Barbara County, with 24 infections and just under 450,000 people is well under 1 per 100,000. So is Ventura County with 39 infections and an estimated population of 854,000.
One of the nearly impossible things about this pandemic is that it is hard to project what will happen next in terms of the trajectory of new cases or their severity. Lack of widespread testing makes forecasting even more difficult.
Anecdotally, we do know that Ventura County was very early to warn the general public about the need for social distancing and that large events were curtailed after March 6. For Santa Barbara County, a significant date is March 10 when UC Santa Barbara transitioned to remote classes and many large events, including a Business Times program scheduled for March 12, were canceled or postponed.
Cal Poly went to remote learning several days after UCSB and, at the time that Santa Barbara and Ventura counties went to partial lockdown, there was more COVID-19 activity in Santa Clara County — which has a lot of interaction with Monterey and SLO counties. All of these would support the hot spot theory.
But SLO County perhaps was more aggressive about testing early for infections and we know that despite a larger number of positives per population, only two of the 42 people infected are at home and presumably recovering. Ventura County has had its first death, a meeting involving Community Memorial Hospital personnel may have resulted in four infected staff and the numbers could rise. Health professionals believe that Santa Barbara County numbers are low because many people are self-isolating and not getting tested.
The fact that SLO cases seem to be rising swiftly now — county officials are looking for potentially 1,000 extra hospital beds — argues for the theory that the early rise in cases will be replicated across the region with potentially devastating results.
Meanwhile, there is the fact that communities do have the ability to affect their own futures when it comes to coronavirus. Will early self-isolation and the canceling of events result in some bending of the curve across the region?
That is a difficult question to answer, but the infection per 100,000 rates are far below the level in cities like Denver and New York. We can at least hope that after enduring two years of nearly nonstop tragedies — fires, mud flows and mass casualty events — it may be that the region’s learned response to life-threatening tragedies has played a role in averting a worse catastrophe.