Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors

Tuolumne County Supervisors (from left) Jaron Brandon, David Goldemberg, Ryan Campbell, Kathleen Haff and Anaiah Kirk — who was not physically present but participated via teleconference — spent about four hours discussing COVID-19 and vaccine mandates at a public meeting on Tuesday.

At least one Tuolumne County employee is among more than 20 COVID-19 deaths recorded in the county since Aug. 1, yet the Board of Supervisors for the county’s government had a four-hour discussion Tuesday of coronavirus policy that highlighted lack of consensus among elected leadership, reflecting how public health and the pandemic are increasingly viewed as fuel for the latest open-ended, inconclusive, political debates.

A host of public commenters brought anti-mask, anti-vax reasoning and rhetoric to the fore, creating the illusion that a majority of people in the county agree with them. No one presented proof that a coronavirus vaccine has killed anyone anywhere in the world, yet arguments presented and accepted by a majority of public commenters Tuesday gave the impression that vaccines are far more dangerous than COVID-19 itself, which scientists say has contributed to the deaths of more than 90 individuals in the county since early last year.

Anaiah Kirk and Kathleen Haff, the supervisors for District 3 and District 4, respectively, took turns amplifying their positions refuting status quo public health recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Public Health. They advocated for further consideration of COVID-infected survivors and their immunity, saying such immunity is as effective as any vaccine.

Kirk spent time during the meeting leading his elected peers and county administration through a set of web links to articles and data supporting his recently-stated view that “Science doesn’t trump my freedom.” Haff submitted an 11-page paper titled “Are We Going in the Wrong Direction with Covid-19 Guidelines and Directives for County Employees?”

Tracie Riggs, the county’s chief administrative officer, reminded board members that in addition to the public comments from some people who identified themselves as county employees against vaccination, the elected supervisors must also take into account the views of county employees who feel unsafe and endangered at work by having to work with people who refuse to get vaccinated and refuse to wear masks.

Toward the end of the four-hour discussion, appeals from elected board members to county counsel for clarity underscored that some supervisors remained unclear at times on what they were talking about, and what the consequences of their spoken choices going forward could be.

“Are we revising policy right now?” Ryan Campbell, the county’s 2nd District supervisor, asked before 2:30 p.m. “Are we no longer going to follow state guidelines?”

Jaron Brandon, the District 5 supervisor, said he would not support mandatory vaccinations for all county employees. Sarah Carrillo with county counsel said the county could face potential liability from the state and from Cal OSHA -- the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health -- if a county employee catches COVID-19 at work.

Carrillo said in a previous board meeting in early August that asking an employee whether they are vaccinated is not a violation of medical privacy rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which applies to health care providers.

Tuolumne County Public Health had the acting county health officer, Dr. Eric Sergienko, and the county Public Health director on hand to answer questions. Several public commenters came to the meeting to show how much they know, and how much they’ve learned from the internet and Facebook about public health, the pandemic, home cures like ivermectin, antibodies, and antigen tests.

Rebecca Espino, the county Health and Human Services Agency director, opened the meeting noting the county’s response to the Washington Fire that broke out Aug. 26, burned 136 acres and destroyed 19 structures. She said the fire prompted “a remarkable unified response from our county and city leaders, county and city emergency responders, and the community.”

She said that in the face of the Washington Fire, there was one team, one county, one fight.

Espino compared the Washington Fire response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has devastated Tuolumne County. As of Tuesday morning, the county had recorded more than 5,800 cases of coronavirus and 94 COVID-19 deaths.

“Leaving in its wake children without their mothers, husbands with their wives, sisters without brothers, friends without their friends, and for the HHSA it left an agency without a beloved employee,” Espino said. “This virus does not care if you are young, old, sick, healthy, vaccinated, or not. Similar to the fire, it only aims to destroy lives and livelihoods.”

Unlike the fire that prompted a unified response, Espino said, the virus has revealed division in the community.

“Unity has always been our best characteristic,” Espino said. “We must be unified in our approach to beat this virus.”

Sergienko talked about the current surge in cases and emphasized again that people can do simple, basic things to slow the spread of coronavirus in Tuolumne County and in local schools. Summerville High School sent students home last week for an emergency closure due to a rise in cases on campus at Summerville.

“If you’re sick, stay home,” Sergienko said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s tummy flu or COVID. Stay home. And if you get a call from Public Health, please be helpful. Don’t hang up on us.”

David Goldemberg, the county’s District 1 supervisor, asked Sergienko what could prevent another surge on the heels of the current surge. Sergienko said the same scenario is playing out in England, and what we’re seeing in the future is the difference between a pandemic and an endemic disease, with smaller and smaller waves, “not the same as the huge surges we see now.”

Brandon said after the meeting there have been three different state guidelines released on mandating vaccines.

“Short of mandating vaccines as a medical treatment, I believe Tuolumne County should do everything possible to support public health and be in compliance with California Department of Public Health guidelines,” Brandon said Tuesday afternoon. “In some cases we're recommending going beyond those for additional testing, masking, and temperature checks.”

Brandon added he does not believe it’s ethical to mandate a medical treatment, which is very different from an equipment mandate such as personal protective gear. Brandon said he’s been consistent so far in stating he believes vaccination should be an individual choice.

“The hard work is in discussion and winning over people's hearts and minds,” Brandon said. “That's how we hit herd immunity and how we beat this. And that means listening and talking to people based on what they value, and confronting this.”

At one point Kirk asked Dr. Alex Heard, the chief medical officer at Adventist Health Sonora, what he would recommend as treatment for COVID-19 to anyone who lives in “a third world country.”

Anything they can get their hands on, Heard responded.

“Ivermectin?” Kirk asked.

“No, absolutely no,” Heard said of the popular home cure that’s all the rage on anti-vaxxer internet sites. “We’ve had a couple patients. One entered into liver failure.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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