Santa Barbara County First District Supervisor Das Williams and Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart got into a bit of a heated ethical argument about COVID-19 vaccine equity between the North County and South County at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
The argument erupted after chairman Bob Nelson brought up the issue of the growing gap between fully vaccinated South County residents and North County residents. Nelson mentioned conversations about the many South County residents who travel north to get vaccine appointments, and noted how those South County residents could be taking away appointments from the often underserved North County community.
The comment sparked the debate between Williams, who saw it as a racially unjust issue, and Hart, who encouraged residents to snag any appointment anywhere they can to achieve maximum vaccination across the county.
In Nelson’s original comment, he said he didn’t blame the South County residents for traveling north to get an appointment and instead just wanted to keep the pressure on Santa Barbara County Public Health to serve all of the communities up north.
To that, Williams responded: “Well, I’m willing to blame people for it. I think there’s something we need to do in crises and emergencies, and the first thing we need to do is not think of ourselves first.”
During the public comment portion, one speaker began by saying, “I want to thank Das for making me feel guilty about driving up to Lompoc,” to which Nelson threw up a fist bump into the air and Williams chuckled.
“The point is not really to make people feel guilty; the point is to use discretion,” Williams said. “The government cannot control each one of these things perfectly, so as you approach a crisis, continue to keep your ethical radar out there.”
Williams explained that people on the South Coast will “vehemently support” the resolution that names racism as a public health crisis, but because “these systems are faceless, will contribute to it by taking a drive … even into the North County without regard of what the ramification is.”
The ramifications, he noted, are that brown people living in the North County are being left behind because they are not being vaccinated in the same numbers as residents of the South County.
Nelson did not specify North County residents by race or occupation when originally voicing his concern, other than describing the community as made up of blue-collar folk.
“In the morning, (people) are worried about getting vaccinated. Then in the afternoon, when we discuss racism as a public health danger, they’re going to be all about fighting that structural racism,” Williams said. “What we need to do is integrate those two actions — our personal actions and our ideals.
“In all likelihood, we will face a greater crisis than this sometime in our lifetimes, and we should try to be ready for it ethically and logistically.”
That is where Hart jumped in, just seconds before Nelson was to call the roll and end the discussion.
“People are acting in their self-interest, and it is important for them to pause and think about the consequences to other people,” Hart said. “But there is a dynamic involved in this event that is a little different because everyone getting vaccinated as fast as possible, anyone getting vaccinated as fast as possible, anywhere in the county, is helping everybody by reducing the spread of the virus.”
He said the idea of waiting for empty spots and letting empty appointments go unfilled isn’t in anyone’s interest.
“I think that’s important to say, that people are acting quickly and expeditiously, and I don’t think selfishly,” he said. “I think they’re trying to do their part to get vaccinated to stop the risk of the virus spreading.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate to criticize people who are trying to do their part to get vaccinated.”
Williams responded: “Yeah, that would be incomplete to say and would only be true starting maybe last week and this week,” to which Hart interrupted to say, “I’m talking about today, and I’m talking about now.”
The two were speaking over each other, and Nelson had to cut in to separate the discussion.
“I think for most of the last year, people behaved really well,” Williams continued. “But this stampede to get vaccinated as quickly as possible for themselves showed some real issues with people’s ethics.”
Hart agreed with Williams, but said he understood that the county is in a different circumstance now.
“What we need to communicate to people today is get vaccinated. There are appointments available. Go quickly and get vaccinated as fast as possible,” Hart said. “Make sure all of these appointments are filled, and that is the fastest way to protect against the spread of the virus.”
Nelson ended the discussion by admitting that he “lit this fire” and wanted to “put it out.”