Local experts discuss where the COVID-19 effort is headed
With the vaccination rate slowing nationwide, local physicians and vaccine providers in Santa Barbara County are facing the unique challenge of convincing a hesitant portion of the population to get their shots.
The county’s vaccination effort has seen a significant slowdown over the past three months.
In April, the effort peaked with more than 148,600 doses administered by the county’s Public Health Department.
Since then, the number of shots given, as well as the interest of unvaccinated individuals, has waned. In May, the county Public Health Department doled out nearly 74,000 shots, and last month, that number fell to 31,700.
When vaccine eligibility expanded for all residents 16 and older in April, vaccine access and availability was a primary barrier for most residents getting their shot.
When new vaccine appointments were made available across the county, it was a race among residents to see who could snatch up the appointments on a first-come, first-serve basis.
But many of those access issues have largely been resolved over time as the Public Health Department began holding mobile clinics in restaurants, at community events and workplaces, and pharmacies and hospitals largely offer shots for walk-ins.
Today, access to a vaccine is not a significant barrier for many county residents, though officials are continuing efforts to reach those who struggle with literacy issues, who may not have access to the internet or who have transportation issues.
As the efforts continue, officials are now facing the challenge of how to address misinformation and convince a hesitant group of citizens to get their shot in the arm.
According to Dr. Henning Ansorg, the county’s public health officer, the county is facing a significant challenge in getting people between the ages of 18 and 40 vaccinated.
He told the News-Press that this is likely because this age group feels a “false sense of security” and safety based on their youth and previous good health.
“People in that age (range) feel less vulnerable to disease in general or to accidents,” Dr. Ansorg said. “They are more ready to take risks in life rather than people over 50 or 55. (Older individuals) are more concerned about not taking risks and being careful, so that’s why we see a much higher percentage in people over 50 getting vaccinated compared to the ones (ages) 20-40.”
Dr. Ansorg said even those who have been previously healthy remain at risk of getting the disease. Young people also remain at risk for developing long-term COVID-19, which includes symptoms like prolonged fatigue, achiness and even depression for months after having the virus.
In addition to the age factor, Dr. Ansorg said another reason for the vaccine slowdown can be attributed to the politicization of the vaccine in the media and on social media. He said conservative personalities, such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News, are “vilifying” the vaccine to audiences, and this is having an impact on whether people get the vaccine.
“(The vaccine) has nothing to do with politics at all,” Dr. Ansorg said. “COVID is a totally preventable disease. Everyone in the hospital, in the ICU and dying right now did not get vaccinated.”
Misinformation campaigns on social media, such as rumors of infertility caused by vaccines or alleged deaths due to vaccines, are also playing a role in the slowing vaccine effort, according to Dr. David Fisk, an infectious disease expert with Sansum Clinic and Cottage Health.
“This misinformation is deadly and is leading to misunderstanding of individuals who have then, based on nonscientific information, chosen to forego the vaccine,” Dr. Fisk told the News-Press. “That is a deadly mistake.”
To overcome these barriers, both experts said the key is members of the community and leaders following science and encouraging those in their circle of influence to get the vaccine.
Whether it’s a pastor promoting the vaccine to a congregation, or vaccinated individuals talking to their hesitant friends about the vaccine, these efforts could be what turns the page in the next phase of the vaccine effort, the experts said.
“If the Tucker Carlsons of this word would pivot and say, ‘Hey, I got the vaccine too, and this has nothing to do with politics, this is going to save lives,’ and if everyone would toot the same horn, I think it would make a big difference,” Dr. Ansorg said.
To those skeptical of the vaccine, Dr. Fisk said it’s important to follow the science, and at this point, the science is telling physicians that the best way to beat the disease is through vaccination.
“What we can do is to seek out the science, seek out the evidence and realize that individuals in medicine and public health do not enter the field of medicine and public health as part of a conspiracy to push dangerous products on the public,” Dr. Fisk said. “Individuals who have been so dedicated in medicine and public health and our community pharmacists go into the field to help people, and we have amassed an amazing amount of experience in our region throughout our careers.”
He continued, “The scientists tracing COVID at UCSB and other organizations, if you listen to them, the overwhelming guidance is that these vaccines are lifesavers, our best way through the COVID pandemic and our best way to slow and cease the spread of this deadly disease.”
Dr. Fisk added that the vaccines are particularly important now as the Delta variant gains a foothold in the county and severely threatens those who remain unvaccinated. He said the uptick in cases the county has seen in the last two weeks can be largely attributed to the Delta variant.
The impact of the Delta variant can be seen in the Public Health Department’s reporting of new active cases.
On Thursday, 50 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the county — the highest daily case rate the county has seen since April.
Officials reported 12 new cases in Lompoc and the communities of Mission Hills and Vandenberg Village; nine new cases in Santa Maria, seven new cases in Santa Barbara; six new cases in Orcutt; four in Goleta; three in the unincorporated Goleta Valley and Gaviota; two in Isla Vista and the Santa Ynez Valley; and one in the South Coast areas of Summerland, Montecito and Carpinteria and in the North County areas of Sisquoc, Casmalia, Garey, Cuyama, New Cuyama and Guadalupe. Three cases were pending.
As of Thursday, 60.1% of the county’s eligible 12 and older population is fully vaccinated, which equates to 50.9% of the county’s entire population. About 68.3% of the county’s eligible population has received at least one dose.
As case rates remain on the rise again, Dr. Ansorg is urging the county’s unvaccinated community to get the vaccine as soon as possible.
“Please get vaccinated,” Dr. Ansorg said. “It’s an altruistic thing to get vaccinated because you protect others from getting sick. So by me getting vaccinated, I’m protecting those around me.”