All Santa Barbara County employees will be required to be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing according to a new policy approved by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The new measure, which was approved in a 4-1 vote, will require all county staff, extra-help employees, contractors on payroll, volunteers and interns to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30 or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. Board Chair Bob Nelson voted against the measure.
The new policy will likely apply to the 30.4% of county employees who have not reported their vaccine status to the county’s Human Resources Department. According to the latest data from the HR Department, 59% of county employees have verified their vaccination status, and 10.6% have self-attested their status.
To verify vaccination, employees can show their COVID-19 vaccination card, a photo of the card, documentation from a healthcare provider or a digital record with a QR code. Employees who choose not to be vaccinated will undergo weekly PCR nasal swab testing that will be self-administered at a department or county site. Employees will then be notified within 24 hours of their test results.
The supervisors’ stamp of approval on the measure came after a 2-hour public comment period on Tuesday, where community members voiced both support and opposition to the requirement. Those opposed to the requirement claimed that the measure would be an overreach into the realm of individual rights and freedoms, while those in favor said the requirement was necessary to protect public safety.
Many public commenters on Tuesday questioned the need for a vaccine requirement when fully vaccinated people can spread the virus. In response, Supervisor Gregg Hart — who proposed the vaccine/testing requirement during the board’s Aug. 24 meeting — reminded the commenters of what public health officials have said for weeks now — the vaccines protect against severe hospitalization and death, while also reducing transmission.
Given the threat of COVID-19 to the county’s most vulnerable populations, Mr. Hart said the vaccine and testing requirement is needed to keep the community safe and prevent more hospitalizations in the county’s already strained healthcare system.
“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 in our nation’s history,” Mr. Hart said. “When I proposed this vaccine or testing requirement at last week’s board hearing, I felt it was warranted solely based on protecting county employees, their families, and just as importantly the public that comes into contact with county employees.”
In addition to the safety of county employees, Supervisor Joan Hartmann said it’s important to remember that getting the vaccine helps to protect a population of children who are not yet able to get the shot due to age restrictions. By vaccinating more of the population, Ms. Hartmann said community members can help slow the spread and prevent the virus from mutating.
“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 COVID will evolve,” Ms. Hartmann said.
Supervisors Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino joined Mr. Hart and Ms. Hartmann in support of the vaccine and testing requirement on Tuesday.
After voting “no” to advancing the policy during last week’s meeting, Mr. Lavagnino voted “yes” on Tuesday after reminding the public on Tuesday that the county is not forcing anyone to get the vaccine if they do not want to.
In response to some public commenters during both this week and last week’s meeting who likened the requirement to “tyranny,” Mr. Lavagnino told commenters “nobody is silencing you.” He encouraged all people to get vaccinated to “save a life.”
“I believe this vaccine is saving lives,” Mr. Lavanino said. “I believe it is protecting the elderly, I believe it is reducing serious illness and hospitalizations. But I also don’t believe anybody should be forced to take it. That’s kind of where I come down. I believe in its efficacy, but if you don’t and you’re scared to take it, I can’t think of anything worse than to be told you have to take something you’re not comfortable with. The good news is, that’s not what the county is doing.”
Ahead of the final vote, Mr. Nelson, the board chair, said he was not supporting the requirement because he wanted to give people more time to do a “personal risk assessment” to consider whether or not to get the vaccine. He added that with FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine only coming a week ago, he believed people needed more time to meet with their physicians to decide what is best.