By Jim Holt
Senior Investigative Reporter
Beginning next month, county employees, from sheriff’s deputies to clerks, could be disciplined for being unvaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
Emerging from a morning filled with blistering public vitriol over the proposed motion, members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors went ahead with a plan to have the county’s Department of Human Resources assume the authority to enforce county employees’ compliance with vaccination requirements.
While four supervisors voted in favor of the move submitted by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, Supervisor Kathryn Barger abstained from the vote.
In the end, supervisors agreed to direct county lawyers to submit amendments to the Civil Service Rules that would provide the director of personnel, or the director’s designee, overriding authority to discipline employees of any county department for noncompliance with the county’s vaccination policy.
The amendments are expected to be submitted to the board March 15.
Barger, whose 5th District includes the Santa Clarita Valley, sent out a formal response explaining her position at the close of the board meeting.
“This action is in response to an individual – Sheriff (Alex) Villanueva, to be specific,” she said in her statement. “To change a policy over one individual isn’t appropriate.”
Barger was responding to Villanueva, who posted his opposition to the enforcement policy on the Sheriff’s Department’s website. On the site, he wrote:
“Today the Board of Supervisors followed through on their threat and voted 4-0 (1 abstention) to form a suicide pact and start the process to fire 4,000 deputies for not being vaccinated.”
“Showing deliberate indifference to the obvious impact on public safety, the board hid behind an alleged threat to public safety they couldn’t back up with data,” he said.
Tuesday’s board meeting was not short on data related to COVID-19, as seen a presentation given by Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
Diminishing COVID-19 Surge
“We do continue to be encouraged … by the steep decline of cases in hospitalizations over the past weeks,” Ferrer told supervisors as she began her update on the pandemic. “The good news is that we’re experiencing this rapid decline in cases and a steady decrease in daily hospitalizations.”
Ferrer tempered her optimism with a caution that “post-surge” does not mean an end to the pandemic.
She reported 4,198 new positive cases and 51 new deaths due to COVID-19 in Los Angeles County.
For the week ending Thursday, LA County reported an average of 9,800 daily cases, representing a 47% drop from an average of 18,617 daily cases reported the previous week.
The daily average cases rate also dropped over the past week to 102 positive cases per every 100,000 residents, compared to 193 positive cases the week prior, reflecting a 47% drop in the average daily case rate.
The seven-day average daily test positivity rate also declined from 8% to 5%.
Living with COVID-19
After debating Barger about the need to maintain mask-wearing, Ferrer said at one point in the exchange: “We need to see how it’s possible to live with this virus.”
“I think we’ve done a good job here in L.A. County. We’ve stayed open through the worst surge that we’ve ever experienced,” Ferrer said. “We are getting better at living with the pandemic but I don’t think we have to do that at the expense of not recognizing our responsibility to really protect workers.”
On the question of workers, mask-wearing mandates and the county’s latest move to enforce vaccination policy, many members from the public called for an end to mask mandates, referring to the proposed enforcement efforts as “terrible … horrible …. Draconian.”
A Santa Clarita woman, noting she was not “anti-Vax,” joined the chorus of those opposed to the enforcement proposal and, like them, worried that thousands of law enforcement officers could lose their jobs if the board endorsed the measure.
The woman identified herself as a mother of two children who attend school in the Santa Clarita Valley and someone who comes from a long line of first responders.
“These masks are terrible,” she said. “It is not OK.”
Speaking of her family of first responders, she said: “They were expected to go out there and do their job, and considered in harm’s way with COVID. They risked their lives. They did everything they needed to do and to now force this upon them is horrific and wrong.”
“I’m not anti-vax,” she said. “I’m not anti-anything. I protect my children.”
Need for Enforcement
In her brief to fellow supervisors explaining the need for stepped-up enforcement of existing COVID-19 policy, Kuehl said that under the current COVID-19 vaccination policy, county employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and submit proof of full COVID-19 vaccination unless they have been granted a medical or religious exemption.
Those who are not fully vaccinated are required to submit to regular COVID-19 testing.
Explaining her motion to the board, Kuehl said that “in the face of the ongoing threat that COVID-19 presents, the board must take action to ensure that the policy’s requirements are being consistently enforced across the county’s departments.“