At Tuesday’s board meeting, Supervisor Joan Hartmann expressed exasperation that the unvaccinated would choose to put the health of those around them at risk. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Famously, there are lies, damn lies, and then statistics. But this Tuesday, the County Board of Supervisors received a boatload of new stats on the county’s COVID crises that lent an unusual degree of clarity. Of 112 county residents who got so sick with COVID during the month of August that they required hospitalization, 95 had not been vaccinated. By contrast, 10 of 112 had been vaccinated. (The vaccination status of the other seven, mysteriously, remained unaccounted for.)

To put these numbers into further perspective, the median age of the already-vaccinated 10 patients was 80 years old.

By contrast, the median age of the unvaccinated patients was 52.5 years old. 

Although the supervisors took no formal action, they devoted a considerable amount of time to mulling over the best way to communicate effectively with those 128,189 vaccine-eligible county residents who have yet to get the shot. 

Supervisor Bob Nelson argued against “blaming and shaming,” insisting that people should be given the space and respect to make up their own minds. 

Supervisor Joan Hartmann expressed exasperation that the unvaccinated would choose to put the health of those around them at risk. One-third of the students at her 10-year-old grandson’s grade school had gotten COVID. For the past two weeks, her grandson has been sick with fevers running at 103 and 104 degrees. “His teachers say, ‘Do your homework,’” Hartmann recounted, “but he’s sleeping.”

Hartmann noted that in previous meetings, she sought to appeal to the vaccination resisters with an expression of broader community concern only to be told Adolf Hitler had made similar arguments in his call to action, Mein Kampf. “It’s unacceptable,” Hartmann stated.

Supervisor Steve Lavagnino recounted how he has given up trying to argue with a family member who is refusing to get vaccinated. “I just show him the slides showing the number of people hospitalized who haven’t gotten vaccinated.”

Lavagnino, who grew up in a religious cult in Northern Idaho, sought to inject some levity by noting that the percentage of eligible county residents who have gotten vaccinated has now crept up to 66.6 percent, the Mark of the Beast in certain camps. More significantly, he added, was that 75.1 percent of all eligible county residents have now gotten at least one vaccination shot. That, he noted, is bordering on what was previously thought — before the emergence of the Delta variant — to be herd immunity. To get 75 percent of people to agree on anything, he said — whether his jacket color was black or dark blue, for instance — was an amazing accomplishment. 

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Tuesday’s statistical brain dump, provided by county Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso, indicated that by most metrics, Santa Barbara County’s COVID profile has been moving in a positive direction over the past two weeks. The number of new cases on Monday — 63 — was down from the prior two-week average of 117; the number of active cases dropped from 587 two weeks ago to 563. The number of people hospitalized dropped from 72 to 66; most critically, the number of occupied ICU beds dropped from 79 percent to 69.7 percent. And the number of cases per 100,000 — a key metric — dropped from 22.8 two weeks ago to 17.1 as of Tuesday.

Even so, people are dying. The most recent death was a Santa Maria resident between 18 and 29 years old. Of the 112 unvaccinated COVID patients in August, nine died. Only one of those deaths occurred in the ICU. The total number of COVID deaths countywide is now 489. Thus far this September, there have been 11 deaths. Of those, six were 70 or older, three 50-69, and one 30-49. 

In August, the county recorded 16 COVID deaths. 

The big shift, according to Do-Reynoso, is the ages of the infected; they’re getting much younger, she said. Of the 112 hospitalized in the month of August, two-thirds were 64 years old or younger. 20 were 29 years old or younger. Five were under 18. 

Unlike the prior three supervisors’ hearings, Tuesday’s was not packed with COVID skeptics and anti-vaccination advocates. One speaker called the supervisors and County Public Health officers “fools,” but in general, the tone was cooler. 

One speaker, Jean Gavin, wanted to know when county health officials thought it would be safe to return to normal. Initially, the goal was to “flatten the curve,” she said, so that hospitals were not overwhelmed. That mission, she stated, had been accomplished. When will it be good enough? she asked. “When will we know when ‘when’ is?” 

Supervisor Nelson echoed her concerns, especially given the acknowledgement by Dr. Stewart Comer, director of the Pacific Diagnostic Labs, that COVID-zero was not on the horizon. 

Do-Reynoso answered, “That’s a great question. That’s a question our team asks ourselves,” but always with a cautionary concern about letting up prematurely. She suggested the line in the sand might be when the case rate dips to four new cases a day per 100,000. But even then, she said, she’s not sure. Santa Barbara County is not an island, she cautioned. “People travel to other places in our country and our state.”

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