It’s not every day an elected county official accuses members of the public who testified against the county’s COVID vaccination effort of behaving like members of a cult. But that’s exactly what County Supervisor Steve Lavagnino did this Tuesday morning, after listening to more than 90 minutes of public comment from 20 militant anti-vaxxers who frequently compared the county’s proposed vaccination plans to something straight out of Nazi Germany.
Lavagnino, it turns out, knows something about cults. He grew up in one, he declared from the supervisors’ dais. His parents divorced when he was a kid over religious differences; his mother moved into a religious cult in Northern Idaho, and Lavagnino went with her. The theology was all about “conspiracy, catastrophe, and persecution,” he recalled. At age 10, Lavagnino said he first encountered a barcode scanner while shopping at a supermarket. Church elders, he said, wasted no time denouncing this new technology as a “mark of the Beast.” Lavagnino said the same type of thinking was evident in the speakers at this meeting.
When one speaker described his recent time in Florida, a state with no mask or vaccine mandates, as a “breath of fresh air,” Lavagnino said that dishonored the grief experienced by families of the 43,000 people recently killed by COVID in Florida.
Lavagnino has personal knowledge of the COVID virus as well as cults. He contracted the virus around Christmas, and though he recovered, he passed it on to his father, now 86. “I almost killed my dad,” Lavagnino said. “If that had happened, I never would have been able to live with myself.”
Lavagnino, a lifelong Republican until Donald Trump’s election, ultimately voted against a measure that would require the county’s 4,300 employees to be vaccinated or subject to regular testing. He wasn’t against the vaccine, he said, but he wasn’t comfortable mandating it.
Now that the Federal Drug Administration just gave final approval — as opposed to the emergency clearance — to the Pfizer COVID vaccine, Lavagnino said the vaccine-hesitant “stragglers” should be given time to make good on their word: that they’d get vaccinated once final approval was issued. In Santa Barbara County, that number is estimated to be 43,000, or one out of every three Santa Barbara residents eligible for vaccination.
No member of the public showed up to speak on behalf of the county’s efforts, but Fred Sweeney, an architect who was there on another matter, took exception to the anti-vaxxers. “This is scary,” Sweeney said, noting that none of the people in the meeting had been vaccinated. “Shame on you.”
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Some speakers disputed that COVID was a medical crisis at all. Heart disease, one speaker argued, killed far more people than COVID. Others insisted that the vaccines didn’t work, or that their long-term consequences were still unknown.
Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s Public Health officer, had composed a list of myths and realities to counter what he’s termed dangerous misinformation, but it had little appreciable impact on the speakers.
Numerous firefighters and nurses framed the matter as a crisis of civil liberties more than a public health crisis. First responders, they said, had performed heroically and safely before vaccines were available; they should be trusted to do the same now.
One nurse at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria said she slept in her car or in a tent on her lawn after working 18-hour days during the height of the pandemic. Her 3-year-old daughter could see her only through a glass window. She estimated 30 percent of Marian’s health-care workers were still unvaccinated. Imagine trying to fill those positions during another surge, she asked. Officials at Marian insist that 90 percent of the staff is vaccinated.
“Don’t be associated with a Nazi regime,” cautioned firefighter Michael Moore, who noted the Nuremberg Code required medical consent. Amy Blair said, “There’s nothing to be scared of. It’s all manufactured by the media,” adding, “This is like an MK-Ultra experiment [a CIA program in which unwitting victims were given doses of LSD to make them more susceptible to brainwashing] on society.” Another speaker said the county efforts were “all about genocide.”
Supervisor Das Williams spoke personally. One of his grandmothers, he said, lived six years under Nazi rule in Holland. His granduncle worked as a slave laborer in a Nazi factory. And his wife’s Navajo grandmother was sent to an Indian boarding school where she was beaten for speaking her native language. “When people compare a mandate that gives you a choice between getting a vaccine or taking a test to tyranny, Nazism, and genocide, it clearly reveals you know nothing about tyranny, Nazism, and genocide.”
By a 3-2 vote, the supervisors instructed county staff to prepare a policy requiring vaccines or a test for all its workers, and to bring it back for consideration by next Tuesday’s meeting.
When the matter comes back to the board, Lavagnino may vote for the policy. After this meeting, he said, “It’s was just a sad, sad hearing here today. Really disappointing.”
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