Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Eight weeks after Santa Barbara initiated a vaccine-or-test mandate for all county workers, 108 unvaccinated Sheriff’s deputies still have not submitted to the weekly tests, according to data from the county’s Human Resources Department. The group accounts for 37 percent of the Sheriff’s Office’s 292 “law enforcement deputies,” most of whom are on patrol assignments. All 250 of the department’s “custody deputies” at the Main Jail, however, are either vaccinated or actively testing, the data shows.

The holdouts remain concerned about the privacy of their medical information, said Joe Pisano, an employee relations chief with Human Resources. They are uncomfortable with how much information they are being asked to provide, he explained, as well as its security when it is collected, along with their test results, by an outside testing company and ultimately shared with the California Department of Public Health. There has also been worry raised that the company, which counts a former tech executive among its directors, will attempt to somehow monetize the information. “I don’t share these concerns, but I understand them,” Pisano said.

Pisano said he has been meeting nearly every week since September with members of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA) union, which represents 94 of the untested deputies. “It’s just a difficult issue,” he said. Not all of the members may feel as strongly about the matter as their DSA leadership, he said, “but they tend to band together.” It’s also not clear when the county may decide to take a stronger stance, Pisano went on, but he’s hopeful negotiations will conclude before any disciplinary action is necessary. “We’re not trying to stress people out,” he said. Changing testing companies may be one of the solutions.

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Supervisor Das Williams, who has enjoyed considerable support from the DSA during recent elections, said he’s “anxious” for the talking to end and the swabbing to begin. Sheriff Bill Brown pushed back against the characterization that the deputies are simply refusing to be tested. ‘“Refusing’ is really not an accurate description of what is happening,” he said. Complicating matters is the fact that the DSA is in separate negotiations with the county over their 2022 employment agreement. 

DSA president Sgt. Neil Gowing blamed the holdup mainly on scheduling issues. “Most of the delays are just due to getting dates scheduled that work for all of the parties to actually sit down and talk and work out the details,” he said. “But we are making good progress.” Gowing said the DSA will continue working with the county to “get all the details worked out as soon as we possibly can, while making sure we don’t neglect our duties and oath to the community members we serve and the victims we advocate for.” 

Meanwhile, Santa Barbara County is experiencing an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the midst of winter holidays and spread of the Omicron variant. Active cases have increased 6 percent in the past two weeks, while the daily case rate per 100,000 unvaccinated residents jumped from 16.6 to 24.1. Hospitalizations went up 34 percent in the same time frame, and intensive care admissions rose 120 percent. Statewide, the daily average of new infections has risen 50 percent since Thanksgiving.

CORRECTION: The figure of 132 unvaccinated, untested deputies has been corrected to 108. The remaining 24 unvaccinated, untested individuals included in the county data are Sheriff’s Office dispatchers and administrative employees.

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