The coronavirus epidemic is historic déjà vu all over again, with the state reporting more than 9,000 large outbreaks in 2021, even after vaccines were given in skilled nursing facilities, residential care facilities, hospitals, prisons, and shelters, much like what occurred in 2020. Santa Barbara County has eight active COVID outbreaks, including one involving 23 people at a school in Santa Barbara.
All infection indicators are moving upward countywide, from a 400 percent higher case rate over the month to a 71 percent increase of patients in an ICU. Public Health is increasing its vaccination outreach, including bringing its mobile clinic to Acme Hospitality, a restaurant group aiming to vaccinate 100 percent of its workforce. Van Do-Reynoso, head of County Public Health, noted $40 million in CalVax grants were available for one month to community-based providers through Physicians for a Healthy California to promote one-on-one conversations between doctors and patients about the vaccine to clear up any worries they had.
This is all to get the attention of the 149,683 people in the county eligible for the vaccine who have yet to step up to get a shot. “We are now experiencing a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s health officer. “It is unnecessary and completely preventable.” Ansorg appealed to friends, family members, religious leaders, sports and entertainment stars, and other prominent individuals to urge people to get vaccinated.
Nationally, infections are up 300 percent, prompting the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on Tuesday to advise once again wearing facemasks indoors, a step driven by the more infectious Delta variant, which is causing the new surge. The head of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said new reports indicated that vaccinated individuals transmitted the virus more frequently than previously thought.
California amped up its requirements and rhetoric one day earlier, making it mandatory for all state employees to show proof of vaccination starting August 2 or get ready to be tested weekly. Health-care workers and congregate-care employees had until August 23 for the same; hospital workers were advised to wear N95 masks, and other medical facility employees to wear surgical masks; the unvaccinated would be tested twice a week. Private businesses large and small were asked to consider the same.
During the Monday morning announcement, Governor Gavin Newsom took the time to lambaste “the right-wing echo chamber that has been perpetuating misinformation around the vaccine and its efficacy and safety” and called out Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene for using a pandemic for political gain.
“It is inexcusable to make this pandemic into a show of ideology,” Ansorg said, who has been increasingly outspoken in recent weeks. Making the point a visual one, a new page at Public Health’s dashboard breaks out new cases by unvaccinated and vaccinated. The rate of illness was five times greater for the unvaccinated; the data for July 20 showed a 7.6 unvaccinated case rate per 100,000 residents and 1.1 among the vaccinated. Of the number of breakthrough infections, Ansorg stated they did not end up in the hospital.
The lack of a vaccination caused the death on July 23 of a young Santa Marian between the ages of 18 and 29 who was otherwise healthy. Ansorg called it one of the saddest cases in all this time: “Our hearts go out to the family and to the friends of this young person who died completely unnecessarily,” he said.
Andy Caldwell has led a conservative business and agriculture group based in Santa Maria for about 30 years and often criticizes Public Health’s efforts at Board of Supervisor meetings. He said he would not tell anyone to get or not get the vaccine as he is not a doctor, but he had a profound difference with officials over the lack of discussion of issues like the potential for vaccine injury, small though it might be, he added. He questioned why vaccine manufacturers received full immunity for their product; when it came to mRNA vaccines, he believed it was experimental technology. And it’s true; mRNA vaccines have yet to be fully sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration; the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are on an emergency use authorization, and their approval would be a first.
Resistance to vaccines is nothing new. The first vaccine, pus from a cowpox blister slid into a cut in the skin to protect against smallpox in England in the late 18th century, was viewed as contamination of a healthy body. When smallpox vaccines were mandated at the turn of the 20th century, some western states banned them outright, said Elena Conis, a historian of medicine and public health at UC Berkeley. Even in states that adopted the mandate, half the legislatures and public opposed them. “We’re just repeating history all over again today,” she said. Making a difference had been the school mandate for students, though resistance grew as the number of vaccinations increased. In 2019, 96.7 percent of kindergartners in the county had all the required immunizations.
Ansorg had a warning: “We all have been behaving as if the pandemic was over. That is absolutely not the case.” The county was back at the brink of shutdowns as in the purple tier and needed once again to avoid crowds, reduce travel, wear masks indoors, and, most importantly, he said, motivate others to get vaccinated. “Instead of lamenting about Public Health recommendations and perceived restrictions,” said Ansorg, “we need to take responsibility for ourselves, our neighbors, and our loved ones.”
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