Of the Sheriff's Office's 161 patrol deputies who have opted to receive weekly tests in lieu of being vaccinated, only 36 of them have registered to be tested, and none have actually been swabbed. | Credit: Courtesy

Compliance with COVID-19 vaccine-or-test mandates at public-facing Santa Barbara institutions varies widely, with high rates reported by many organizations and much lower figures found at others.

The Sheriff’s Office appears particularly out of sync with the county ordinance that went into effect three weeks ago, on October 18. Of the department’s 161 patrol deputies who have opted to receive weekly tests in lieu of being vaccinated, only 36 of them have registered to be tested, and none have actually been swabbed. That’s according to the most recent data available from the county’s Human Resources Department. “We have some work to do there,” acknowledged director Maria Elena De Guevara. 

De Guevara said her office remains in discussions with Sheriff’s employees who’ve “expressed concerns” about the registration and testing process, but she couldn’t elaborate beyond that, citing confidentiality laws. “We want them to come along,” she said. “We’re trying to answer all of their questions, but they also have to start complying with the policy.” While vaccine hesitancy has been reported among law enforcement agencies across the country, testing refusals have not been as widely documented.

Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Raquel Zick said she couldn’t comment on the matter and referred all questions to the Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA), the employee union leading the negotiations. Multiple attempts to reach the DSA were not successful.

Of the department’s 295 patrol deputies, 181 ― or 61 percent ― have been fully vaccinated, Zick said. Among custody deputies working at the jail, where yet another COVID-19 outbreak recently took place, only 49 percent are vaccinated. It’s not clear how many among that group have or have not submitted to the required testing.

Meanwhile, 63 out of 246 county firefighters have opted for tests over vaccines, said Captain Dave Bertucelli. But unlike the Sheriff’s Office, all 63 have registered with the county’s HR department and, as of this Monday, all have been tested. Among the county’s entire 4,564-member workforce, 80 percent have been vaccine-verified, De Guevara said.

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The City of Santa Barbara, slightly behind the county in its mandate timing, is requiring all staff, including its police officers and firefighters, to provide proof of vaccination by December 1. Compliance figures will be available after that date.

Over at the Santa Barbara Unified School District, 96 percent of its approximately 1,700 staff are all vaxxed up, said spokesperson Camie Barnwell. The district placed eight employees on leave ― two teachers and six administrative staff ― who didn’t get their shots, or apply for exemptions, by the November 1 deadline. “We have substitutes who are filling in for those positions, but we are still working on a longer-term solution,” Barnwell said. 

An announcement to staff on Tuesday stated that employees with religious or medical deferrals must submit to twice-weekly COVID testing, wear an N-95 mask, and practice social distancing. Seventy employees have requested religious exemptions, and seven have asked for medical exemptions, Barnwell said. “These numbers represent a combination of staff and classroom teachers,” she explained. “We are still in the process of working through the requests on a case-by-case basis.”

Maria Zate, a representative for Cottage Health, said 96 percent of the local healthcare leader’s 4,160 employees are vaccinated, with 220 staff receiving exemptions. “Those who qualify for an exemption will be tested twice weekly and must show a negative COVID test result,” she said. “Masking is required throughout the hospitals, by all staff and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.”

Santa Barbara’s other healthcare powerhouse, Sansum Clinic, appears to have one of the highest compliance rates in the region. Spokesperson Nicole Young said, “99 percent of our healthcare providers and 98 percent of our staff members are fully vaccinated.” A large number of the unvaccinated staff “work in a non-clinical setting or work remotely from home,” Young explained, “and all of them are required to be tested weekly.”

Dignity Health, which operates the Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria, notably declined to provide any data about its workforce. Spokesperson Sara San Juan said only, “Dignity Health and Marian Regional Medical Center are committed to maintaining the safest possible care environment for our patients and employees, and ensuring we are appropriately staffed to continue providing essential health care services for our communities.” The organization, San Juan said, “supports state and federal guidelines that require COVID-19 vaccination for health care workers.”

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