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Northern Santa Barbara County was left behind in the fight against COVID-19

Northern Santa Barbara County was left behind in the fight against COVID-19

Picture of Laura Place
A cyclist in Santa Maria.
A cyclist in Santa Maria.
(Photo by Randy de la Pena)

The city of Santa Maria, located at the northern edge of Santa Barbara County, is widely known for its rich agricultural history, local parks, and majority-Latinx population. In the past year, however, the area has gained notoriety for having one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 on the Central Coast. 

COVID-19 cases in Santa Maria began to outpace neighboring parts of the county shortly after the beginning of the pandemic. From May until December, Santa Maria accounted for about half of the county’s total cases, despite holding only 25% of its population. 

By the summer, as hundreds of cases arose and deaths increased, city leaders clashed with public health officials, claiming that a lack of geographic case data delayed their ability to identify and assist areas with the highest levels of spread. The small amount of geographical data shared by public health identified some of the city’s lowest-income and majority-Latinx areas as mini epicenters in the county. This trend all but confirmed local advocate’s concerns about the virus hitting people of color in disadvantaged areas the hardest, a pattern seen in most cities throughout the United States. 

For families living in multigenerational households, many of whom did not have the choice to work safely from home, the situation spelled a potential death sentence. During the winter COVID-19 surge, several families were devastated by the loss of multiple members, some within days or weeks of one another.

Santa Barbara County’s Latinx population, the majority of which resides in Santa Maria, has shouldered the burden of the rapid spread, with countywide COVID-19 data indicating higher rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths compared to other racial or ethnic populations, according to county demographic data. However, these trends were not fully understood or shared by the county’s Public Health Department until nearly eight months into the pandemic, after the virus had already taken hold.

Data also indicate that farmworkers, most of whom are Latinx and Indigenous individuals living in Santa Maria, had the highest number of COVID-19 cases of any sector in the county during the summer, further illustrating the virus’s swift impacts on the county’s most disadvantaged populations.   

On the local level, little outreach was done to the local community about the impacts of the virus. This was made apparent when the Santa Maria City Council passed an ordinance heavily regulating local street vendors in December, with many residents baffled at the timing of stricter regulations when many were already struggling due to the pandemic. At the time of this writing, another ordinance promising similarly sweeping regulations on mobile car washers, another sector made up largely of low-income families of color, is on its way to being passed by Santa Maria’s leaders. 

Some city leaders made more concerted efforts to provide opportunities for feedback on social media, which garnered varied responses from a diverse array of community members. In a project exploring the inequitable impacts of COVID-19 in Santa Maria, creating opportunities for wide community feedback could prove to be invaluable, both via social media and by collaborating with trusted community groups to include hard-to-reach populations. 

While county leaders began to collaborate more closely with community groups on an equitable rollout of vaccines in Santa Maria in recent months, the differences in access remain stark. Most county vaccine clinics meant to assist areas most devastated by the virus have been flooded by predominantly white, higher-income residents from South County areas like Santa Barbara. Despite the greater focus on equity in North County, as of early April, 12.3% of the area’s population has been fully vaccinated, compared to 19.3% of South County residents.

Even as growing access to the COVID-19 vaccine brings the county into the next chapter of the pandemic, one year after the first case was confirmed, the virus’s disproportionate impacts on Santa Maria have gone largely unexplored and unaccounted for. I am eager to further explore the causes and lasting effects of these impacts during my reporting for the 2021 California Fellowship.


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