SAN LUIS OBISPO — San Luis Obispo County Public Health Officer Dr. Penny Borenstein said the County’s COVID-19 cases “continue to go in a direction that is very much giving us pause.”

Borenstein opened the weekly COVID-19 briefing that covered the current surge, rumors and the vaccine on Wednesday, Dec. 16, as she usually does, reporting the County’s case numbers — 195 new cases, two deaths, 29 hospitalized with seven in the intensive care unit, and 1,523 active cases. 

The County was at 8,090 total cases, and a week ago, that number was 7,071. 

On Thursday, the County’s numbers showed no signs of slowing down as 179 new cases were reported, two more deaths, 27 hospitalized including eight in the ICU, and 1,633 active cases.

There have been eight COVID-19 deaths reported in the past three days — six on Tuesday and two on Wednesday and Thursday — and more are coming at what Borenstein described as a remarkable rate.

“Another six new deaths that happened in the last 24 hours that are not yet in that overall number because we are waiting for finalization, but that is, unfortunately, the pace of death that we are seeing and that is our most troubling statistic,” Borenstein said. “Obviously, it is more than a statistic. Our hearts go out to the families who are experiencing this.”

There have been 18 COVID-19 deaths in SLO County this month. In addition to the deaths, Borenstein said the County is dealing with 21 outbreaks, a high for the County. They run the gamut but are primarily in residential facilities for the elderly, nursing homes, other long-term care facilities, fire stations, prison, state hospital, and the county government.

“We are seeing first responders getting ill, and with that, I hope that you will continue to answer the call to do everything you can to not contribute to the spread of disease and keep our first responders safe, keep our hospitals safe where we are also beginning to see some of our most important hospital workers test positive for COVID,” she said. 

Borenstein pleaded for the second straight week for people to help slow the spread by wearing a mask and social distancing.

“I think you can hear the gravity and tone in my words related to this,” she said. “The threat is now and it is here in our County. And if you have not been paying attention, this certainly is the moment to do so.”

With Christmas and New Year’s right around the corner, Borenstein used a slide to illustrate a concerning pattern. It showed after Halloween, the County had a significant surge in cases, and then things leveled off, and cases shot up again after Thanksgiving.

“We do not want to see that same type of impact to our community after the upcoming Christmas and New Year’s holidays,” she said. “We need to double down on driving down the daily onslaught of new cases in our community. That will also help our businesses get back to business if we can get our disease under control.”

Borenstein spent much of the weekly briefing addressing rumors and incorrect information.

COVID-19 is fake or overblown

“Again, I point you to the death certificates,” she said. “If just want to look at that, 300,000 Americans since March have died from this disease.”

Accuracy of case counts

“I hear 99.9 percent of people do well with this disease,” she said. “That is not true with respect to the death counts. I also hear that most of the reports of cases are inaccurate. That is also not correct. The PCR test is the gold standard, and we have a very low false-positive rate among all of the tests that are done locally and throughout the world using this test. The antigen test, in fact, does have more false positives, and that is why we continue in this County to not use it or not recommend it because it has an 85 percent accuracy. It misses positives, as well. The PCR test we are talking 1 or 2 percent where you might have either a false positive or a false negative.”

Cycle threshold value

“I’ve been hearing a bit about this, that the cycle threshold value that the test is inaccurate because it picks up people who are not currently infectious,” she said. “And while that may be true, that, and I’ve said this in the past, that the test is looking for, the PCR test is looking for the virus not whether or not it is live or dead. So there is some number of cases where the person may, in fact, be in a recovery phase but still have some number of organisms that are detected. But we have looked at that, our cycle threshold values, where if they are higher may indicate less reliability of active infection. Those higher values, cycle threshold, are a very small percentage of all of the tests that are done.”

“I know this gets a little wonky and I’m happy to address it further, but I wanted to address that head-on,” she added. “I’ve been hearing this over a number of weeks that the test is unreliable because of the cycle threshold values. I will very much have that dialogue with anyone who wants to talk about cycle threshold value as just one more way of saying that we are overstating the seriousness or the number of disease cases that we see in our County or in the world.”

Fake results

“I continue to hear people say that people who have not been tested are getting fake results,” she said. “They are being given results by text that they tested negative when they never went and got a test. I believe that is very old news. Quite a few months ago, we had a small number of cases because of a computer glitch where that occurred, but that has not been the case in our community or to the best of my knowledge anywhere in the state of California in quite some time.”

Borenstein reiterated she was open to talking to people about any of these repetitive rumors.

Lastly, Borenstein said the County received 1,950 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and would begin vaccinating on Friday. More Pfizer doses were expected to arrive next week. The County was also expecting to get Moderna doses as soon as it received emergency use approval.

Borenstein indicated vaccination would be done in phases beginning with health care workers and emergency responders. She said County Public Health had received inquiries about the vaccine and asked people to be patient.

“We are getting a lot of people that are ready to take one, and that is great news,” Borenstein said. “I also want to ask that people be patient. We will be putting information on our website about when different sectors of our community will have the availability of getting vaccine and they should tune in there. This is going to be over months and not weeks.”