In the latest symbolic rebuke against public health precautions, elected officials in El Dorado County last week took turns sharing debunked concerns and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines before ultimately passing a resolution decrying school vaccine mandates.

Without citing evidence, the chair of the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors said he didn’t “believe” vaccines were effective. The official who introduced the resolution falsely claimed that “we don’t know” what is in the vaccines.

Public health officials were concerned about the comments, which harken back to conspiracy theories throughout the pandemic and sowed doubts about well-established COVID-19 vaccines. The comments, experts said, stand to put the community at greater risk of a winter surge in coronavirus cases among unvaccinated residents.

“I don’t believe the vaccine is effective, personally,” said John Hidahl, chair of the Board of Supervisors. “But that’s a personal choice and decision for what you want to do. I’ve chosen not to get vaccinated.” He did not return a request seeking comment for this story.

The resolution, passed Nov. 16, was intended as a show of solidarity against Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plans to require children be vaccinated against the coronavirus in order to attend school. That plan takes effect after the vaccines receive full approval from the FDA, likely next summer at the earliest.

Residents, not “the government,” should decide what measures to take against COVID-19, the board’s resolution said. In a 4-1 vote, members supported the resolution and agreed to send a letter to Newsom.

Board members acknowledged the resolution was toothless because they have no power to alter state policy. They cautioned residents who jammed in meeting chambers for the nearly three-hour hearing that nothing would actually change as a result of their vote.

The meeting came two days after The Sacramento Bee reported about how conspiracy-driven anti-government groups have derailed local government meetings across the state. It was the latest in a series of actions aimed at rebuffing the state when it comes to pandemic precautions.

The Oroville City Council on Nov. 2 voted to call itself a “constitutional republic” not subject to state laws, echoing right-wing anti-government outrage from the past year. Other locations, primarily in rural North State counties, have followed suit throughout the pandemic.

“These local officials are playing to their constituents,” said Lisa Pruitt, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, who studies rural issues. “They are, I think, often in agreement with their constituents, but also understanding they don’t have any power as a local government entity to really resist the state in any meaningful way. So they make these statements.”

Those statements, and the misinformation surrounding them, fed a nearly three-hour meeting in which commenters repeated many of the same conspiracy theories that have come to dominate public meetings across California in recent months.

They called the COVID-19 vaccine a “mystery drug” and said it was “killing people.” Some brought their young children, who spoke into the microphone about their concerns about the public health precautions. One woman held up a pocket copy of the Constitution and called it her vaccine passport.

“This is a circus,” said Sue Novasel, the lone “no” vote, as people shouted over her.

In an interview, Novasel said the disruptions have escalated in recent months, fueled largely by online misinformation. She said she has felt threatened and that the lack of civility and decorum at the meetings has made it difficult to run a complex government bureaucracy.

“We can’t do so when we’ve got a disruptive group that is determined to stop a procedure and a process that for over 200 years has worked,” Novasel said. “That’s frustrating. Because it just doesn’t get the government working in the right direction.”

‘Vaccines work incredibly well’

A packed room at a board meeting repeating debunked claims about COVID-19 is not representative of the vast majority of residents in a city or county, said Richard Carpiano, a sociology and public health professor at the University of California, Riverside.

But when those fringe beliefs become legitimized, Carpiano said, “you get these people that get into these positions of responsibility that have some very questionable sorts of views.”

They also then dominate how local board meetings operate and provide a platform for elected officials to offer dangerous takes on public health, he said.

“It is very concerning going into the winter months that some people have not yet chosen to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Timothy Brewer, professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA. “And hopefully they will get vaccinated because these vaccines work incredibly well. They’re very good at preventing serious disease, hospitalization and death.”

Data the CDC updated this week on the effectiveness of vaccines shows that unvaccinated people were nearly six times as likely to test positive for COVID-19 than were those who’d gotten the vaccine. Unvaccinated people were 14 times more likely to die from COVID-19, according to the CDC data.

Despite evidence from around the world that the vaccines are remarkably effective and safe, four-in-10 El Dorado County residents have not been fully vaccinated. That plateaued vaccination rate has public health experts worried going into the winter months. Last month, National Guard medics were dispatched to help hospitals in both Northern and Southern California, where unvaccinated COVID-19 patients inundated local hospitals.

The laissez faire approach to the pandemic that county officials propose runs against the core tenants of public health, said Dr. Arthur Reingold, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley and chair of California’s COVID-19 vaccine workgroup. It’s also a “disservice to their constituents.”

“Saying, ‘Well, I’ll take my chances,’ or ‘it doesn’t seem so bad to get the virus’ or ‘it’s a benign infection that I’ll recover from and get better immunity,’ frankly, to me it just goes against what we want to achieve in public health, which is to prevent people from getting sick in the first place.”

Correlation does not mean causation

Supervisor George Turnboo introduced the resolution with a personal story about a friend who he said received a COVID-19 booster shot, traveled to Idaho and became “very sick.” As she arrived, she was talking to her family when the woman “coded,” he said. Her husband performed CPR, and she ultimately survived, Turnboo said.

“This is the kind of stuff that has to stop. We do not know what’s in these vaccinations,” Turnboo said. His comments were met with a booming 10-second applause. He repeated the claim later when describing the vaccine’s effects on young people. “We have no idea what’s going on.”

But we do, experts say. Suggesting otherwise is disingenuous and downright dangerous, especially in areas with a significant population that has so far decided against being vaccinated, Brewer said.

“If they don’t know what’s in it, it means they haven’t bothered to look,” Brewer said, adding that the FDA and CDC have the information publicly posted and have for a year.

“It’s really not a credible argument to say we just don’t know,” he said.

Turnboo did not return a request seeking comment for this story. While side effects from the vaccine are possible, they are almost always mild.

Just because someone suffers a medical emergency after getting a dose doesn’t mean the vaccine caused the emergency, Brewer and Reingold said. In a large population, they noted, a certain number of people will suffer an emergency on any given day regardless of whether they received a vaccine.

“Just because a rooster crows in the morning and the sun comes up doesn’t mean that the rooster crowing causes the sun to come up,” Brewer said. “People tend to link things that occur temporally in time together as being related to each other. That’s not always true.”

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Jason Pohl is an investigative reporter at The Sacramento Bee covering criminal justice and government accountability. He joined The Bee in 2019 and spent the year investigating conditions inside California’s county jails, in collaboration with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He previously reported for newspapers in Colorado and Arizona, and is an avid backpacker and trail runner.

(this story/news/article has not been edited by PostX News staff and is published from a syndicated feed)

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