MAN BITES DOG: I’m a word guy, but every now and then some number sashays along and bites me in the ass.
That’s what happened at last Friday’s weekly media briefing on COVID — hosted by the county’s two co-COVID czars, Dr. Henning Ansorg and Dr. Van Do-Reynoso.
For all the Hunger Games exasperation expressed by those not on the vaccination cool-person list yet, it turns out a ton of people at the very top of that list are still “hesitant” — that’s the word — about getting vaccinated. We’re talking frontline health-care workers — people who interface directly with those seeking medical attention.
As of last Friday — many weeks into the county’s ongoing vaccination fire drill — 50 percent of those health-care workers had actually gotten vaccinated. I could have used the word “only” to modify the number “50 percent.” But that would run counter to the false sense of journalistic dispassion I try to project. That means 50 percent of the county’s 26,000 frontline health-care workers are, well, hesitating.
These 26,000 health workers and more than 32,000 people 75 years old and older are first in line to get the 6,000 vaccines the federal government sends us a week. To date, we have received 61,000 vaccines. That 50 percent, by the way, is just an average, explained Ansorg, so understated in his communication style that he could holler “fire” in a crowded movie theater and no one would get trampled. At Cottage Hospital, Ansorg said, 80 percent of the workers have gotten vaccinated. But in some skilled nursing facilities, the number is closer to 30 percent.
That means 70 percent have not.
That matters because when it comes to COVID outbreaks, skilled nursing and long-term care facilities are potential tinder boxes.
As the owner of Heritage House on Hollister Avenue in Goleta put it, “I run the equivalent of a cruise ship,” he said. “But my crew gets to go home every night.” He paused to let that sink in. You didn’t need to be able to spell “epidemiologist” to get the picture. He runs a very nice place. Light, bright, clean, airy, warm, inviting. Lots of amenities. When I visited, I met a retired four-star general who was staying there. As a long-term care facility, Heritage House was at the top of the list for vaccinations.
But the feds had contracted with Walgreens and CVS to do the vaccinating at such facilities. At the time, Heritage House had been getting the run-around from CVS. The owner was calling his congressmember, his county supervisor, his state representatives, county public health, and, as a last resort, even the media. At the time there was nothing the county could do but also plead, cajole, and otherwise intervene. Eventually the vaccines appeared.
I asked the understated Ansorg why so many health workers were hesitant. He blamed conspiracy theories and hoaxes that abound on social media. How Bill Gates is infusing the vaccines with ID chips for nefarious purposes. How vaccine test subjects died off mysteriously by the thousands when the real numbers are closer to six, of whom only two were actually vaccinated. (The other four were given placebos.) Some people worry the vaccine will render them sterile.
And then we’ve all seen what happens as hordes of wildebeest try to cross the river on Nature TV. The first ones in the water, typically, get chomped by the crocs. No one wants to get chomped. To a certain extent, hesitancy is hardwired into the part of our brain that control wildebeest behavior.
But Ansorg also acknowledged cultural and historical issues. Black and Latinx people, he said, are more hesitant than others because of fear and mistrust when it comes to government authority. According to a recent Kaiser survey, 57 percent of white people would take the vaccine as soon as possible, while only 35 percent of Black people would and 42 percent of Latinx people would.
At the county supervisors’ meeting this Tuesday, Do-Reynoso revealed that preliminary numbers show that in Santa Barbara, 31 percent of those vaccinated so far are white, 18 percent Latinx, 0 percent Black, and 20 percent of multiple ethnicity and race.
But for those inclined to dismiss “equity” as the latest in a long line of trendy PC causes, consider this: Latinx people make up 48 percent of our population, 65 percent of our cases, 72 percent of our hospitalizations, and 56 percent of our deaths.
Who do you think is working in all our skilled nursing facilities? In all our medical facilities? In all our cruise ships where the workers get to go home every night?
The big problem here is that there are actual facts that infuse this suspicion — actual facts that are much crazier than any deranged conspiracies about pedophile pizza parlors.
For 40 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Public Health Department conducted an experiment on 600 unwitting Black subjects in Alabama to determine the biological impacts of syphilis if allowed to go untreated. The experiments — conducted in conjunction with Tuskegee University — began in 1932. Six hundred subjects were enlisted with the promise of free medical treatment; 400 had latent syphilis, 200 did not. All were Black, poor sharecroppers. Most were illiterate. They were told they were being studied for ailments related to “bad blood.”
Even though penicillin hit the scene in 1947, none of the subjects were given any. No one named Mengele was involved.
Internal whistleblowers raised ethical concerns in 1955, 1965, and in 1966, but each time their objections were brushed aside. Not until the now defunct Washington Star broke the story in 1972 was the experiment halted. By that time, 128 of the subjects had died from syphilis or its many complications — blindness, deafness, mental deterioration, heart disease — 40 wives infected, and 19 children born infected.
Those are some serious numbers. My ass hurts. And I’m at a loss for words.
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