Do county supervisors bear a responsibility to correct the COVID misinformation being spouted by public commenters at virtually every meeting these days? And if so, how to go about it?
Those questions were briefly considered at Tuesday’s meeting of the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors following the latest batch of fist-shaking claims about ivermectin, natural immunity and government overreach.
Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman had offered his latest update on local conditions surrounding the pandemic, saying our case, hospitalization and death numbers have improved but also plateaued, and local vaccination rates have continued their slow climb, with roughly three out of every four eligible residents having gotten at least one dose. He commended the county for this progress.
He also noted that there are many as-yet-unanswered questions about the omicron variant, with preliminary data suggesting that it spreads rapidly but may cause less severe and deadly infections.
“Hope is there, but we need more time to understand this variant,” Hoffman said.
Then came the public comments, which were once again dominated by unwitting exemplars of the Dunning-Kruger effect. One guy claimed that masks don’t work (they do) and that the county’s emergency health powers are fraudulent (naw). Another argued that mask mandates are an “egregious violation” of some law or other. One relayed an anecdote about a man who allegedly “threw himself off a building after admitting that COVID is a scam.”
Dr. Stephanie Dittmer, a family medicine specialist in Fortuna, called in the midst of these comments to denounce such blatant misinformation, saying it’s the reason why we’re still in this pandemic. She lamented the politicization of the science and suggested that there needs to be “a targeted approach to eliminating the misinformation.”
After the comment period, Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson noted that while many people seem to focus on COVID deaths, there are other serious impacts, including “long COVID.” He mentioned a 45-year-old friend who died after contracting COVID and was “very misinformed about vaccines.”
Wilson said he empathized with Dittmer’s concern over allowing public meetings to become forums for the spread of misinformation.
However, First District Supervisor Rex Bohn, who has been consistent in his advocacy of vaccines, pushed back a bit, noting that even doctors don’t all agree about everything and that stories in the media don’t typically come with stamps saying “this is good information” or “this is bad information.” He referred to the wide array of public feedback as “the people’s information.”
Wilson deemed this “a reasonable critique” of his own comments, though he said the board should “give a reasonable response” — to misinformation, presumably.
Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell suggested that the frequency of these official COVID updates could maybe be reduced to once per month instead of every other week. The board deliberated that a bit and then agreed to it unanimously.
Later in the meeting, the county put a bow on its decennial redistricting effort, unanimously approving a new supervisorial district map that’s virtually identical to the one established in 2011. Senior Administrative Analyst Neftali Miller-Rubio noted that there are some very minor variations due to census block shifts along the Mad River. (Click here for a pdf of the new map.)
She also said that even though the map didn’t really change, the redistricting effort wasn’t a waste of time because it established a de-politicized process that provided channels for community feedback and ultimately confirmed the public’s satisfaction with the status quo.
Wilson remarked that the county’s redistricting process “wasn’t the best,” but he also expressed gratitude that it didn’t get as politicized as in other counties, such as San Luis Obispo.
The board unanimously approved the new map.
The board later spent some time discussing who should serve as chair and vice chair next year. The positions don’t really confer any power to speak of, though the chair is responsible for moderating the meetings — that is, calling on fellow supervisors and staff members who raise their hands to speak, cutting off public commenters who exceed their time limit, asking for motions and seconds, etc. (The vice chair fills in if the chair is absent.)
Though there’s no written policy governing this annual transfer of minor power, the board has a longstanding tradition of taking turns, cycling through each supervisor in numerical order based on the districts they represent.
Last year, however, Wilson threw a bit of a wrench in the works. It was his turn to serve as chair and Fourth District Supervisor Virginia Bass’s turn to be vice chair, but Wilson begged off, saying he couldn’t commit to the extra responsibility given his other duties, which include serving on the California Coastal Commission and being at home with kids whose schools were shuttered due to the pandemic. He and Bass wound up swapping roles for this calendar year.
What does that mean for next year? Wilson said he’d be happy to take his overdue turn but didn’t necessarily feel compelled to do so. If the board reverted to its established order then next year would technically be Bass’s turn, with Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone in the vice-chair seat.
“I very much would like to be the vice chair next year,” Madrone said, referring to it as a training opportunity. He also said he doesn’t particularly care to take over as a board representative on the county’s Audit Committee, even though that committee’s charter calls for the chair and vice chair to represent the board. He suggested that Bass and Wilson continue their service on that committee through next year.
Ultimately, the board opted to revert to the established order, making Bass chair for a second year in a row and allowing Wilson to skip his turn entirely. Madrone will serve as vice chair. He’ll be elevated to the position of chair in 2023 — if and only if he wins re-election next year, that is.
A couple other tidbits:
- During the public comment period for matters not listed on Tuesday’s agenda, a couple of cannabis cultivators called in to complain that applicants for the county’s Project Trellis microgrant program must have business licenses and permitted structures on their parcels, which can be difficult hurdles to clear for “legacy” farmers dealing with regulatory delays. They asked for applications to be opened to people who’ve started the process.
- Representatives from the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee (nicknamed the McKMAC) appeared with an updated set of rules and regulations, which they asked the supes to approve. However, Bushnell was reluctant to do so without seeing exactly what changes had been made, and so the matter was continued to the board’s Jan. 11 meeting.