Supervisor Steve Lavagnino (pictured) agreed with Supervisor Bob Nelson in a no vote on extending the county's emergency declaration, though it passed 3-2. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

New COVID rules from the state were issued on Monday, but for Santa Barbara County, universal masking indoors will remain in effect for the moment. Much of California is captured in the Centers for Disease Control’s red zone for high levels of community transmission, including Santa Barbara, said Jackie Ruiz, spokesperson for County Public Health. For that reason, here and in many counties with health officers, wearing a mask in public indoors remains the rule. Ruiz said Public Health was looking closely at what the state has done and evaluating whether to lift the order when it expires at the beginning of March or possibly earlier.

The state COVID numbers have dropped precipitously from a high of 110,000 new cases on January 19 down to 41,000 on Tuesday. That’s still a far cry from the fewer than 4,000 daily cases before the Omicron surge began. Likewise, Santa Barbara County counted 474 new cases on Tuesday compared to nearly 1,500 cases on January 13, also distant from a halcyon moment in early December when County Public Health officials optimistically anticipated that a case rate of 7 per 100,000 residents would allow them to remove the mask mandate.

The state’s announcement fomented rare drama and discord over what otherwise would have been strictly a pro-forma and procedural maneuver at the Board of Supervisors this Tuesday. When the supervisors were asked to extend the state of emergency declaration for COVID — necessary to maintain social distancing, mask requirements, and Zoom interaction capacity for supervisorial meetings — supervisors Bob Nelson and Steve Lavagnino, both representing North County districts, voted no. Even Supervisor Das Williams — a liberal South County representative who noted that people are still dying from COVID — said he wouldn’t vote to extend another time after this week’s vote.

Nelson, long impatient with the restrictions of the mask mandate, expressed incredulity that California could open its arms to both the Rose Bowl and the Super Bowl games yet insist there was an emergency sufficiently severe to justify the mask mandate. “It doesn’t make sense,” he stated.

Lavagnino said people ask him all the time what the supervisors will do. He was told that County Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg and head of Public Health Van Do-Reynoso are evaluating the matter, and that the county’s existing mask mandate will remain in effect at least until the end of February. 

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Supervisor Gregg Hart noted that the numbers are indeed going down but that they are still quite high and nowhere near the thresholds established earlier in the pandemic to lift the mask requirement. “We need a little more patience, people,” he implored. “Nobody’s talking about extending the mask mandate indefinitely.” How long would it be? “Maybe months, maybe weeks,” he said.

The new, more relaxed state rules applied to long-term care facilities as of Monday. The larger allowance on mega events and indoor-masking rules for only unvaccinated individuals begins February 16; however, counties are allowed to have more stringent health rules. In explaining why he was modifying the state rules, Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, who heads California Department of Public Health and is the State Public Health Officer, said, “Omicron has loosened its hold on California, vaccines for children under 5 are around the corner, and access to COVID-19 treatments is improving.”

Santa Barbara County has no health officer order for mega events or congregate care facilities, thus, state rules are observed. Ruiz noted that congregate living facilities, such as skilled nursing homes, would be evaluating their residents’ vulnerability to disease and would each make their own rules regarding visitors and vaccination status.

Beyond masks, vaccination continues to divide opinion. Though both the Pfizer and now the Moderna vaccine, as of last Friday, have received full authorization for use from the Food and Drug Administration, the county vaccination rate is drifting upward slowly. On Monday, the fully vaccinated — which the county counts as those with two shots — were at 66.8 percent of the county’s population.

The vaccines, achieved by the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed in less than a year — timing that astonishes some and raises suspicion in others — nevertheless have had a profound effect. Looking back to May 2021 when vaccines became available for people as young as age 12, County Public Health data showed that 63 percent of cases since then were unvaccinated, as were 79 percent of hospitalizations and 89 percent of deaths.

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