Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meets Tuesday to discuss moving forward with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement. (Jade Martinez-Pogue / Noozhawk photo)

After an hours-long hearing Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to move forward with a COVID-19 vaccine requirement that will require vaccine verification or weekly testing for all county employees.

“The way I see it, we have an obligation to protect each other from a dangerous, highly infectious disease that has killed in only 18 months more Americans than died in the four years of the Civil War — the bloodiest war of our nation’s history,” said Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart, who proposed the vaccine requirement at last week’s meeting. “I don’t believe we can wait any longer. The timeline going forward gives employees the timeline they need to consult with their health care providers while moving expeditiously to help protect the health of our employees and the public.”

The requirement will take effect Sept. 30 and will apply to all county workers, including, but not limited to, regular staff, extra help, contractors on payroll, interns, volunteers, and all other workers who regularly perform services for the county on-site and interact with other individuals as part of their services, according to Maria Elena De Guevara, the county’s Human Resources director.

For employees who choose to get vaccinated, they must submit proof with a COVID-19 vaccination record card, a photo of a vaccination card as a separate document, a photo of the client’s card stored on a phone or electronic device, documentation from a health care provider, a digital record, or documentation of vaccination from other contracted employers who follow these vaccination records guidelines, according to a staff report.

Those who do not wish to receive the COVID-19 vaccine will receive weekly testing using a PCR nasal swab test. The tests will be self-administered in the presence of an employer either at the department level or at a county site, De Guevara said.

The employees will receive their test results within 24 hours, and if the result returns positive, only the county Human Resources Department and the individual will be notified, De Guevara said. The Human Resources Department will then notify the affected department.

As of Monday, 59% of the county’s 4,610 employees had verified full vaccination status, 10.6% had self-attested to being vaccinated and 30.4% are unknown, according to De Guevara.

Knowing that vaccinated people can still get the virus and transmit it to others, board chair Bob Nelson asked why the testing requirement wouldn’t apply across the entire organization.

In response, County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato said the requirement is just precautionary so that, as an employer, the county is limiting as much as possible the chances of infection to the public and fellow co-workers.

“We as staff are not calling this a mandate; it’s a requirement because people do have the option of getting tested versus getting the vaccine,” Miyasato said.

The board ultimately approved the vaccine requirement on a 4-1 vote, with Nelson opposed. 

Nelson said that while he is vaccinated and does believe that vaccines have been widely successful in preventing hospitalizations and deaths, he fears that the county is pushing toward mandates when it should be up to the people to decide.

Before adopting the requirement, the board for about two hours heard nearly 60 members of the public express their opinions about the requirement.

The comments ranged from desperate pleas and overwhelming support of the requirement to fiery accusations of government overstep and violations of civil liberty.

Caroline Abatte said vaccine mandates go against the notions of the Declaration of Independence.

“How is someone supposed to live in liberty and the pursuit of happiness when they have to live in constant fear and are forced to accept an unwanted vaccine injection?” Abatte asked the board. “Think of how inhumane it is to put someone in a situation where they have to choose between keeping their job and a forced experimental injection. It is cruel to have to make a choice like that.”

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino later noted that is not the case with the vaccine requirement, and clarified that no county employee will lose their job if they choose not to get the vaccine.

“I believe the vaccine is saving lives, I believe it is protecting the elderly, I believe it is reducing serious illness and hospitalization, but I don’t believe anyone should be forced to take it,” he said. “The good thing is that’s not what the county is doing; this is not a vaccine mandate — at all.”

One member of the public who is awaiting a kidney transplant that will weaken her immune system said that she no longer feels safe running the simplest of errands because of the number of unvaccinated individuals in Santa Barbara County, and urged the board to move forward with the requirement. 

“If I do come in contact with people who work for the county, I would expect to be safe with them. But, at this point, this is not the case,” she said. 

Other immunocompromised residents shared similar sentiments, while other county residents said that the vaccines do not protect against virus infection or transmission. Some called the vaccine an experiment and vaccine mandates discrimminatory, while others said the vaccine requirement is the only way to keep people safe and are “absolutely necessary.”

Ultimately, the board decided that it was in the best interest of Santa Barbara County residents and county staff to move forward with the vaccine requirement. 

“Our job is to protect the vulnerable in our community,” Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said. “We need to vaccinate as many as possible in our community to reduce the spread and to reduce the possibility that even more virulent strains of the virus will evolve.”

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.