Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday directed staff to develop a draft policy requiring county employees to be vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus or submit to weekly testing for COVID-19.

“There is an invisible communicable disease in this room right now that threatens people’s health,” said 2nd District Supervisor Gregg Hart, who brought up the proposal of mandating either employee vaccinations or weekly tests.

In a 3-2 vote, the board directed the staff to have the draft policy ready for the next meeting Aug. 31.

Board Chairman and 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino dissented in the decision, indicating they want more information about the percentage of county employees who are already vaccinated before considering such a mandate.

“I think demanding someone get the vaccine, for me, is a step beyond what I want to take,” Lavagnino said.

The decision came after hearing about an hour of comments from 19 public speakers, who disputed the information presented by Public Health Department officials, characterized mandatory vaccinations as a civil rights rather than a health issue, and compared COVID-19 health mandates to genocide and Nazi Germany.

County case rate comparison.jpg

A graph from a Santa Barbara County Public Health Department update on the COVID-19 pandemic shows how the county's average case rate, in orange, has consistently remained below those of Ventura County, green line, and San Luis Obispo County, blue line, from July 13 to 19, which health officials attributed to reinstituting mask mandates sooner than the others.

Their comments followed an update on the pandemic from Van Do-Reynoso, director of the Public Health Department, who said as of Aug. 14 the daily COVID-19 case rate among vaccinated residents stood at 9.5 per 100,000 residents.

However, the case rate among unvaccinated residents hit 37.3 per 100,000, giving the county an average case rate of 22.8.

She said that meant unvaccinated individuals were 3.9 times more likely to contract the disease than their vaccinated counterparts.

“We’re continuing to see this great divide,” Do-Reynoso said, later noting that of the 100 people hospitalized for COVID-19 from May through July, 88 were unvaccinated, while just 12 were fully vaccinated.

She said 64% of the county’s eligible residents had been vaccinated as of Monday, but she expressed hope that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of Pfizer’s vaccine Monday would prompt more people to get the shot.

Based on the results of a May survey, Do-Reynoso estimated 42,000 to 43,000 county residents might now be ready to get vaccinated.

County Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg refuted some of the myths about testing and vaccines, including that tests are unreliable; having COVID-19 and recovering provides better protection than the vaccines; the vaccines have caused thousands of deaths; the vaccines are experimental gene therapy; and vaccines cause infertility.

Ansorg cited sources or provided websites to back up his statements, but the public speakers weren’t buying it.

“All these pages, it’s junk, junk, junk,” said Amy Blair, flipping through Do-Reynoso and Ansorg’s report, after saying the pandemic has all been manufactured by the media.

“What you have here is not a board hearing room, it’s an echo chamber,” said Andy Caldwell from the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, referring to county health officials simply repeating what others have said. “The vaccine does not stop the spread, and it does not stop infection.”

One speaker said the vaccines are really a synthetic pathogen, and another said alternatives like ivermectin, used to treat parasites in animals, and hydroxychloroquine, used to treat malaria, have not been considered.

A number of speakers, several of them firefighters, focused on mask and vaccine mandates as a civil rights issue.

Daily case rate in SB County.jpg

A graph from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department shows the new COVID-19 case rates per 100,000 residents for the unvaccinated, top line, compared to the vaccinated, bottom line, from May through July. The center line is the average of the two rates.

“We the people are awake and will continue to fight against overreaching civil liberty- and constitutional right-crushing policies,” said Sean Coffman, who said he has 26 years with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department.

“California is shaping up the way Nazi Germany started,” said Michael Moore, a county firefighter for 13 years, telling supervisors they could make the county an example to other counties. “Don’t be associated with the Nazi regime."

Despite the speakers’ opposition to mandated vaccination, 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann and 1st District Supervisor Das Williams supported Hart’s proposal.

“Vaccine resistance isn’t new — it goes back to the smallpox vaccine in the 1800s,” Hartmann said, adding that issue went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the mandate. “On balance, the risk of COVID is much greater than the vaccine.”

While Lavagnino wasn’t ready to support a vaccine mandate, he said he does support vaccination because of his experience in contracting the disease.

“I made it through,” he said. “It wasn’t that big of a deal, to me. … But I passed it along to my dad, who is 86 years old. And I almost killed him. … And if that had happened, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”