Op-Ed: Santa Barbara County Failed Its Citizens
By Gustavo Ingles, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara County failed its citizens by being secretive and opaque during the COVID-19 crisis.
From the moment the coronavirus was on our shores, Santa Barbara County did their best to silence community concerns, keep information hard to find, and refused to be proactive to stop the spread of this deadly virus.
When Californians watched with anxiety as a cruise ship loaded with COVID-19 patients made its way to the San Francisco Bay Area, another cruise ship anchored in the Santa Barbara Harbor. When county officials were asked if other cruise liners would be allowed to anchor off our shores, Santa Barbara County said they “didn’t know,” as reported by Channel 3.
As Monterey County was proactive to kick the cruise ships out, Santa Barbara County sat on their thumbs not knowing what to do. It took a letter from the City of Santa Barbara’s mayor asking cruise ships to cancel their planned visits before anything was done. In fact, Santa Barbara Public Health said there was “no reason to be alarmed” about upcoming visits from cruise ships. Even as the cruise ship at the center of the outbreak - the Grand Princess - was slated to disembark on our shores in April. (Again as reported by channel 3). The County prioritized cruise ship profits over the community wellbeing.
When Point Mugu was used as a quarantine destination for recent travelers to Wuhan and Hubei provinces, Ventura County provided continuous updates about each person’s medical status. The virus was in our backyard and Ventura County kept a watchful eye on its spread. In San Luis Obispo County, Camp Roberts was floated as another location for COVID-19 patients. SLO County officials warned the public ahead of time and pushed back.
As rumors swirled that Vandenberg was under consideration as a quarantine site, Santa Barbara County officials again “didn’t know” if that was accurate. Again the county was bailed out by another agency's transparency as VAFB issued a press release dispelling those rumors.
On Feb. 28, public health officer Dr. Henning Ansorg told Noozhawk that they were prepared for a possible outbreak but were hopeful there would be no cases in our area. He even described the chance of contracting the virus as “extremely low.” "It’s just like nonexistent basically,” Ansorg told Noozhawk.
Ventura County’s public health officer, Dr. Robert Levin told the VCStar that it was inevitable that locals would eventually contract the coronavirus - and he was right. He did, however, downplay the fatality rate of the disease like most other health officials in the country.
I will credit Ansorg for hammering home the critical importance of washing your hards. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. And as the outbreak continued to inch closer and closer to Santa Barbara County, Ansorg was absent from many county public health briefings - instead opting to call in to the meetings from elsewhere. Where previous health officer Charity Dean was the face of County Public Health Department, Dr. Ansorg was the voice - nowhere to be seen. He has since remedied that in the county’s semi-regular news briefings (more on that later).
Ventura County issued a stay-at-home order for its residents 70 and older as Santa Barbara County suggested large events be canceled. It also ordered bars and venues to close and restaurants to shift to carry-out and delivery only. Days later, San Luis Obispo County did one better, a mandatory shelter at home order for ALL residents, the same orders issued by Gov. Newsom.
Santa Barbara County, to its credit, saw their neighbors enacting restrictions and decided to announce their own shelter at home order. Residents 75 and older were encouraged to shelter at home. It was a similar, yet less restrictive order than the one issued by Ventura County, THREE DAYS earlier. And rather than announce this order in a publicly televised event for the thousands of residents who have come to depend on our local news stations and online publications, they announced the order in a teleconference. Half a million people were informed that their lives would be changing drastically… in a phone call. A phone call where most local media couldn’t attend and most of the populace couldn’t tune in.
Luckily, the county was bailed out once again by a much more competent administration.
Gov. Newsom announced a statewide shelter at home order to ALL citizens, not just those who are most vulnerable. The state saw the risk of young people spreading the disease. He took the necessary steps to flatten the curve, and even with his interventions, thousands of Californians are still likely to lose their lives. Including some in Santa Barbara County.
Santa Barbara County was sure to let the public know they were “going to” announce a countywide stay at home order, but the Governor beat them to the punch. A round of applause for Santa Barbara County for almost doing the right thing in a timely manner.
Now, after Santa Barbara County’s cases begin to dwarf that of San Luis Obispo County and encroach on the number of its southern neighbor, Santa Barbara County officials are finally starting to get the memo.
The County is holding semi-regular news briefings featuring Supervisor Gregg Hart, Dr. Ansorg and County Public Health Director Van do-Reynoso (on occasion). But, even when they make the right decision, they deviate for the sake of being different. Ventura County and San Luis Obispo County are holding new press conferences every weekday and some weekends. Santa Barbara County has no clear defined schedule. A friend who works for one of the newspapers tells me that the County wouldn’t even disclose to the media where the press briefings would be held until minutes before the first briefing was held.
It’s already obvious to me that the county was unprepared. They didn’t take it seriously and they thought they could solve the issue without hurting the local economy. They were wrong. So now the question is this: why isn’t the County at the very least being transparent? Is County Public Health in over its head? Did Dr. Ansorg and Dr. do-Reynoso bungle their preparedness plan and are now covering their tracks? Is County public information director Gina DePinto trying to save face for her lack of transparency and her inability to understand how county residents ingest information? Or were the County supervisors more concerned about keeping their seats on the board, placing their focus on fighting for re-election rather than taking care of their constituents (speaking of which, where have Das Williams and Joan Hartmann been?).
And why is Cottage putting out their own numbers that differ from the official county tallies? Is Santa Barbara County trying to hide what is a much more grim outlook?
The fact of the matter is this: national health experts knew we were in trouble. State health experts knew we were in trouble. San Luis Obispo and Ventura Counties knew we were in trouble. Santa Barbara County hoped that ignoring the problem would make it go away. Now we are all paying for their incompetence.
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