Santa Barbara Needs a COVID Czar

By Gwyn Lurie   |   February 11, 2021

If we’ve learned anything over the past decade, it’s that government alone cannot solve all our problems or foresee every disaster. But we can at least expect they will recognize their own inherent limitations or as the saying goes, “Lead or get out of the way.”

Last week in A.L. Bardach’s MJ cover story “Santa Barbara’s COVID Mess,” Bardach describes a local COVID vaccination process that many believe is rigidly narrow, falls short of state mandates and underserves large swaths of our most vulnerable residents – causing more anxiety and confusion than it is alleviating. Last week Jerry Roberts spoke with Bardach on his weekly Newsmakers podcast, where Bardach called for the County to appoint a COVID Czar to focus solely on pandemic issues – current and future – a person who could formulate a more equitable and efficient vaccination plan. I strongly endorse Bardach’s recommendation.

Czar: “A person appointed by government to advise on and coordinate policy in a particular area,” is the second definition in the Oxford Dictionary. The first being, of course, “An emperor of Russia before 1917.”

In 2015 I served on the SB County Child Welfare Safety Net Task Force to explore how our County could better serve our most vulnerable youth. After some 87 stakeholder hearings, our top recommendation was the establishment of an independent entity focused on our most at-risk children. In short, a Child Welfare Czar.

The Supervisors did not accept our recommendation.

Following the Thomas Fire and Debris Flow disaster, when our local leaders were admittedly “overwhelmed,” again the idea of a Czar was raised. One Supervisor brushed aside the idea “joking” that he’s “more of a Bonapartist than a Czarist.” However, since FDR, our federal government has created 343 Czar positions to deal with societal issues or unforeseen disasters. States and local governments too have increasingly used Czar positions to oversee – and spearhead – complex issues.

So, here we are again, in another calamitous moment, dependent on local officials – hired pre-pandemic – to organize and strategize a path out of this mess. 

I called County Supervisor Das Williams to understand why our County, despite the State’s guideline for vaccinating those 65 and older, are only providing for those 75-plus, and leaving out those in the prior decade, even those with life threatening comorbidities.

“The biggest issue by far is supply,” Williams said. “I am not comfortable asking our 75 and older residents to compete with 75,000 others to get their vaccine… It’s a supply issue. A lot of vaccine has not shown up… On a given week we receive enough vaccine for just 1.3 percent of our population,” Williams said.

I could tell Das was frustrated by the supply issue, but I pressed him: “But what about those 65 and older with underlying conditions and who may be at more risk than some who are 75-plus?” Williams conceded the point: “I agree, it makes sense to segment by risk. I would be very supportive of a thoughtful tier system based on risk.”

“Is there anyone in our County working on creating an equitable system that takes risk into account?” I asked.

I kept returning to the question of why we weren’t trying to figure out that question locally, since the state has decentralized its approach, a decision Williams insists has added to the confusion. In fact, Long Beach has made the unilateral decision to include teachers and politicians in the group approved to be vaccinated. The first one of which very few people would argue. Williams says he expects that a tier system is forthcoming from the state. 

Certainly the task of vaccinating at least 70% of the world is a massive undertaking. And counties are faced with a microcosm of that Herculean challenge. And relative to statistics that just came out, we’re doing a pretty good job. But more can and should be done.

As of today, the County has distributed 86% of all doses received. Presumably, the next tier will be those age 65-plus. At the moment, however, there is not yet a plan in place to include those with specific COVID sensitive comorbidities.

I asked Williams why the Supervisors hired a non-MD as our County’s Director of Public Health. Especially when the Public Health Officer at the time, also a candidate for the position, was a renowned and highly regarded epidemiologist Dr. Charity Dean?

“At the time we did not know we would be dealing with a pandemic,” Williams said. “There were important administrative aspects of the job and we saw the need for a strong administrator.” To put this statement in context, 22 years ago President Clinton procured $51 million and signed into law the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile, a repository for drugs and vaccines at the CDC for civilian use during pandemics. Likewise, in 2001, literally one day after 9/11, W and Cheney went hard into pandemic preparedness, fearing the next attack could be biological or virological. And it is well known that Barack Obama left a pandemic playbook for his predecessor. The takeaway is multiple presidents have been anticipating this moment for nearly a quarter century. 

Pressed as to why Dr. Dean was not tapped for the top County COVID spot Williams responded: “I’d love to have Charity Dean back.” Williams in no way suggested that the County’s current Director of Public Health Van Do-Reynoso and the County’s current Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg are not capable professionals.

In Santa Barbara we have ongoing seismic activity, climate extremes, year-round fires, debris flows, and now we are getting slapped by a deadly pandemic. Isn’t it time we accept that disaster is part of our life? That disaster is something to anticipate? 

SB County is packed with formidable talent who could be enlisted to boost our COVID strategy beginning with Thomas Tighe, CEO of Direct Relief (who reportedly was rebuffed when he offered Direct Relief’s renowned expertise and distribution assistance to the County back in November); and how about Dr. Charity Dean who is back in Santa Barbara?

Sup. Williams says he has no recollection of the County turning down an offer from Direct Relief. A spokesman for Direct Relief carefully says, “we have a standing offer with the County.” But if true, declining help from Direct Relief is jaw-dropping. I would think it would be all hands on deck.

Which brings me back to the question of a County COVID Czar. Not a Russian Emperor, but a respected pandemic strategist and sharpshooter backed by a team of our community’s best talent who can help support our well-intentioned officials in coordinating policy and moving us through this disaster. And let’s face it, COVID will not be our last pandemic. And it certainly won’t be our last disaster.

We all have questions about our State and our County’s vaccination rollout. So we have invited County Supervisors, County Public Health Officer Dr. Ansorg, and County Director of Public Health Van Do-Reynoso to participate in a community Zoom conversation on Friday, February 19 at 10:30 am so that they can fill us in on where we are, where we are going, and hopefully answer some of our other important questions. We will update you next week on the status of that Community Covid Zoom forum (Click here for the Town Hall Info). In the meantime, if you have questions you would like to ask our supervisors, please send them to me at gwyn@montecitojournal.net.

 

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