Would you rather be eaten by a lion or a tiger? Swallowed by a python or squeezed to death by a boa constrictor? These are the sort of hypothetical questions that bugged the crap out of me even as a kid. But now, there’s nothing remotely hypothetical about them. These are the choices that confront us even as we shut our eyes or reach for another drink. For Santa Barbara’s county supervisors — and pretty much all elected officials — it has become the only question. How much can we open up our economy without putting ourselves in grave peril?
There are no good answers, only bad and worse. That was the takeaway from Dr. Anthony Fauci’s testimony in front of the Senate yesterday even as doubters and skeptics like Kentucky’s Rand Paul — the floridly contrarian libertarian — sought to pin the nation’s most trusted health advisor’s ears back. It would take a lot more than Rand and his curly locks to flush Fauci, who squarely contradicted his boss, Donald Trump, making it very clear that, no, we absolutely do not have a handle on this thing, and we risk a massively lethal backlash if we move too quickly to the turn the lights back on. To the extent there’s anyone left in Las Vegas, the only action now is how long will it take for Trump to fire Fauci.
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In Santa Barbara, we have no Fauci. We have instead Dr. Henning Ansorg, a relatively recent arrival to Santa Barbara now just a year into his new gig as public health officer, a weirdly obscure but exceptionally powerful position akin to being both doctor and sheriff. Where Fauci radiates both twinkle and gravitas, Ansorg is solid and stolid. He doesn’t smile. He doesn’t ingratiate. He speaks haltingly and carefully with a slight but pronounced German accent. His bedside manner isn’t so much bad as it is nonexistent. To the extent Ansorg radiates anything, it’s a combination of duty and doom.
In other words, he’s exactly who you want calling balls and strikes.
About the same time Rand Paul was telling Fauci he did not think he was the “end-all,” County Supervisor Peter Adam — another contrarian libertarian — was similarly attempting to take Ansorg to task. To the extent Adam’s concerns were decipherable, he was suggesting county health officials had cooked the books to make COVID appear worse than it actually was by counting flu deaths as COVID deaths. Adam found it suspicious that flu deaths would cease completely at exactly the same time county records started recording COVID cases. Couldn’t some of what’s been blamed on COVID, he seemed to wonder, actually have been caused by the flu?
Ansorg explained that all 11 of the county’s COVID deaths had tested positive for COVID. All 11 had also been tested for the flu. This year’s flu season, he acknowledged, had been unusually mild. COVID and the flu, he reminded the supervisors, are completely different animals. COVID is two and a half times more infectious and infinitely more deadly. The mortality rate for the flu, Ansorg noted, was .01 percent. For COVID nationally, it’s 5.7 percent. In California — due to social distancing — it’s been about 4 percent. In Santa Barbara, Ansorg noted, we’ve had seven flu deaths in three months, the average age of the average victim being 89. By contrast, we’ve had 11 COVID deaths in one month, the average age of the victim being in the mid-sixties.
At one point in his interrogation, Ansorg expressed bewilderment at what Adam was asking. “I do not understand the motivation of your question, sir,” he replied. Many of us are similarly afflicted. Adam appears to be a nuevo-retro Darwinist who believes nature should be allowed to run its course so that humans can develop what’s known as herd immunity. Of that approach, Ansorg stated, “It’s very difficult to open the floodgates and let nature take its course.” The virus, he cautioned flatly, “is too aggressive.”
Far more dramatic — though quietly so — was the way Ansorg distanced himself from County Supervisor Gregg Hart during a press conference the day before. Ansorg never once contradicted Hart, but the picture he painted was sharply at odds with one conjured by Hart, one of the most skillful operators on the political stage and ruthlessly disciplined when it comes to public messaging. Hart is leading the charge to get Governor Gavin Newsom to give Santa Barbara the variances necessary for us to turn the lights back on. Santa Barbara County, he argued, should not be held accountable for the hundreds of COVID cases exploding at the Lompoc prison given that prison’s refusal to engage with county officials. But for Lompoc’s numbers, Hart argued, Santa Barbara County has all but pulverized the curve.
In his remarks, Hart focused on the fact there had been only one new case — just one — reported this past Sunday. Ansorg, by contrast, focused on the number of new cases reported on Monday: 54. Of those, 40 were from the prison. But 14 were not. (Under the governor’s metrics, we are allowed no more than four a day.) Even without the Black Swan event now unfolding at the Lompoc prison, Ansorg quietly stressed, Santa Barbara had too many cases and too many deaths to qualify for the variances the county is now seeking. More troubling still, he suggested, we can’t safely exclude Lompoc from the equation. Aside from the inmates, there are 450 people who work at the prison. They live in the surrounding communities. If 70 percent of the inmates tested positive so far, what can we surmise about the guards who drive to and from work every day? And so far as we know, only 42 of them have been tested.
The cognitive dissonance between the two could not have been more sobering. And there was no drink strong enough to reach for.
That’s because they were both right.
Balls or strikes? Call ’em, Dr. Ansorg. Both seem aimed at our head.