After changing messaging surrounding COVID-19 testing in Santa Barbara County, the Public Health Department is opening testing to all residents to help the county reach the next reopening tier and avoid incurring penalties from the state.
In July, due to a shortage of appointments and test availability, county residents were instructed to refrain from getting tested unless they met certain characteristics, such as being exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 case, experiencing virus symptoms or residing in a congregate living facility.
On Friday, county officials changed their tune, encouraging residents to pursue testing even if they don't meet priority requirements.
Nick Clay, director of the Santa Barbara County Emergency Medical Services Agency, said state-run testing sites in Santa Maria, Goleta and Buellton have seen less demand over the past few weeks, and as a result, officials have increased availability of appointments.
Higher testing volume is critical to the county's ability to move into the next reopening tier, with Santa Barbara County currently in the most restrictive phase, or the "purple" phase.
"We recognize the messaging on testing has shifted during the course of the pandemic. The message has been primarily driven by testing availability. We are now asking the community to get tested, because not only is testing more readily available but sustained community testing will help our county move into the next tier," Clay said.
Along with meeting metrics for test positivity and case rates in order to move into the next tier, counties are required to perform a test volume that aligns with the state average. Failure to meet this average can result in counties being penalized through increased case rates from the state, slowing down their progress toward the next tier.
A Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge on Friday approved a preliminary injunction, ordering a Buellton gym to remain closed over alleged violations of COVID-19 health orders.
Weekly COVID-19 data reported by the state on Sept. 8 lists Santa Barbara County as having a seven-day average test rate of 191.7 per 100,000 people, just below the state average of 213.
As a result, the county's case rate was adjusted slightly upward from 8.3 per 100,000 people to 9.1, a step farther from the required case rate of 8 per 100,000 to move into the red tier, which would permit the reopening of sectors including schools, gyms and restaurants for indoor operation.
Officials said meeting the state testing rate can be challenging as it changes every week, making it a "moving target."
"This is a dynamic situation in real time," said 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart. "We’re asking people to get tested because we have the capacity to meet that need now, whereas in the past that wasn’t possible. It is advantageous to the community to have more testing."
Along with greater availability at state-run testing sites, officials said results are being turned around in under three days, a welcome change from wait times of up to a week in earlier months.
Dr. Stewart Comer, director of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Laboratory, reported that further testing opportunities may be coming to the county in the near future in the form of a large-scale antigen testing platform from medical developer Abbott Laboratories.
"These are all very strong and positive developments," Comer said.
As of Monday, the county has performed over 134,000 tests, and is expected to reach 150,000 by the end of September, Comer said.
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