The Board of Supervisors approved a lease to turn the former Sears building into a facility for the treatment of COVID-19 overflow patients, but Santa Barbara County never implemented the agreement.
In the July rise in local cases and hospitalizations, the county saw the vacant store as a potential alternative care home for South Coast patients.
The lease, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors but was never executed, outlined a plan to upgrade the building to a 200-bed healthcare facility to serve patients if the nationwide hospital system was overwhelmed.
The building at La Cumbre Plaza, at 3845 State St., has been empty since Sears closed in January 201
“As for Sears as an alternative care area, that is not the state’s direction at the moment,” Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso told regulators Tuesday.
“We currently have overvoltage capacity in our hospitals. If the need for us is to have an alternative care site, we will collaborate and utilize what is available on SLO’s alternative care site if necessary, and that is a big ‘if necessary’.
“Right now, our hospitals are quite comfortable and prefer that any extension to patient care be within their four walls and within their campus. The problem is getting staff.”
North County patients could be referred to the alternative treatment site established (but never used) on Cal Poly, the San Luis Obispo campus.
“When we pursued Sears as an opportunity last year, it was a different time and a different space in the pandemic. It is no longer recommended or preferred in our healthcare providers in the community or in the state given what we know about the treatment of inpatients, ”said Do-Reynoso.
The supervisory board approved the lease for the property in July, but the county later decided not to execute the deal, Assistant Director-General Skip Gray told Noozhawk in an email Tuesday.
“Once it was determined that the county no longer needed the Sears property, we ended up not executing the agreement or lease,” Gray said.
The agreement and the letter of intent to lease the property covered a “free period” until August, he said.
“The county made the decision not to enter into the lease on August 28,” Gray said.
The county still has an agreement to use the Best Western hotel at 2220 Bath St. as an alternative care facility near Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, but it has not been activated, Gray said.
Plans for surge in the hospital
Do-Reynoso said hospitals prefer to expand capacity within their own facilities, which is what they do with surge plans.
Hospitals report that they currently use 13 beds in intensive care units for COVID-19 patients. Approximately 64% of ICU patients in the county have COVID-19.
With 211 COVID-19 hospital patients, there are more than twice as many now compared to the summer peak, who worried officials to the point where they followed alternative care facilities.
Cottage Health President and CEO Ron Werft last week described the work that Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital has done to convert units into COVID-19 treatment areas and draw staff from other areas of the hospital.
There was a COVID-19 isolation unit that was in operation at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital over Thanksgiving, and now there are five, including two ICU units, Werft said last week.
One of the surgical ICU units was converted into a unit to care for COVID-19 patients, he added.
The current challenge is more than staff, say public health and hospital officials.
“When we look at the increasing demands on our hospitals in Santa Barbara, beds are not going to be the challenge, PPE and fans are not going to be the challenge,” Werft said. “The problem is critical nursing staff.
“While right now we are staffed beyond what we normally see, the ability to identify, recruit and expand to that kind of demand is very challenging.”