After 57 speakers weighed in on both sides of the question of mandatory vaccines or testing for COVID 19 — often politely, sometimes angrily, but always intensely — the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to require all 4,610 county employees to either get vaccinated or to submit to weekly tests beginning September 30.
Many supes took pains to stress it was not a mandate but a choice. As of this Monday, county HR officials had verified that 59 percent of all county workers had already been vaccinated. A little more than a third — 34.4 percent — declined to say.
As has been the case during the prior two meetings when the issue was being debated, the argument against vaccinations was exceptionally heated. Pro-vaccination supervisors again found themselves compared to Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler, one speaker noted, defended his actions on the grounds of “the common good.” Another speaker noted that the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz started off as a quarantine center for the sick.
For the first time, however, vaccination supporters also showed up in substantial numbers — many, but not all, were Democratic Party activists, urging the supervisors to take decisive protective action. One speaker noted that nine members of her family had come down with COVID; another said her family had 22 cases. Of those, the two who hadn’t taken the vaccine, she said, nearly died. The rest got better in three to five days.
Another vaccine supporter — still recovering from chemotherapy — said she’d been yelled at for wearing a mask. She described dealing with a health-care worker who hadn’t gotten vaccinated. Another supporter — a 34-year county worker awaiting a kidney transplant — said she had been ordered to work in a room with 100 other people for 16 hours a week.
Leading the charge for the new requirements was Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, who just last week had voted against any such policy. Lavagnino, a former stand-up comedian as well as a former Republican, noted that he had been compared to Hitler at the beginning of the meeting and then decried as a Holocaust denier at the end, both by the same person. “We also heard a lot how government ‘is trying to silence us,’” he added, “three times in the same meeting. We forget what real tyranny looks like. Here, you get to go to the podium and denounce government. Go try that in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
The vaccine is effective, Lavagnino argued, but he said the government should not force anyone to take it. “But that’s not what the county is doing,” he stated. Instead, he insisted, county employees have a choice between getting tested and taking the vaccine.
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Countywide, the numbers are getting somewhat better. According to Van Do-Reynoso, County Public Health director, the number of new cases has dropped somewhat in the past two weeks, as has the number of people hospitalized. As of Tuesday, there were 75 COVID patients occupying county hospital beds; 18 were in an ICU bed.
The latter — perhaps the most ominous stat — is down 12 percent from the week before. Supervisor Gregg Hart recited a personal letter the supervisors received from ER doctor Jason Prystowsky, lamenting, “I have put too many people on mechanical ventilators. Please! We are exhausted. The vaccine works. The Delta virus is far more dangerous. We don’t need another surge.”
The other side had their medical luminaries as well. At least a couple of registered nurses spoke out against the vaccines, one vowing to leave the state if need be to avoid such coercive measures. She also stated the nursing shortage at Marian Hospital in Santa Maria has erupted into a full-fledged crisis. In Santa Barbara, Sansum Clinic oncologist Dr. Mark Abate objected to the vaccine on medical and religious grounds. Abate — whose wife, Caroline Abate, has frequently spoken out against the vaccine — said he wouldn’t get vaccinated because he’s pro-life. He didn’t explain what he meant by that, but another speaker taking the same tack stated fetal tissue had been used in the development of the vaccine and was similarly involved in the development of the PCR COVID-19 test. Caroline Abate told the supervisors her husband might soon find himself forced out of medicine after treating people with cancer for nearly 33 years. She termed the choice “cruel.”
Vaccination critics questioned why all county employees were not being required to submit to regular testing. With the recent ascendancy of the Delta variant, it’s widely recognized that even vaccinated people can still get infected with the newer variant. More critically, they can also pass it along to others.
Many called into question why the test wasn’t being universally required. County Supervisor Bob Nelson — who cast the sole vote against the new requirements — seized on it himself. “If we know people who are vaccinated can still get and spread COVID, why wouldn’t we be testing the entire organization?” he asked county executive Mona Miyasato.
“That’s a good question,” she answered.
CORRECTION: The requirement goes into effect September 30, not June 30 as originally reported.