Santa Clara County has an optimistic outlook post-COVID-19, board leader says
Board of Supervisors President Mike Wasserman delivered his State of the County speech Monday, Feb. 22 via teleconference.

Despite the past year’s 1,700-plus COVID-19 deaths, gaping budget shortfalls and widespread job loss, Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Mike Wasserman sees light at the end of the tunnel.

In his first State of the County address earlier this month, Wasserman called for unity and preparedness for a post-pandemic world and made an urgent plea for more COVID-19 vaccines from the state and federal government.

He also pleaded with eligible residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

The 10-minute virtual address struck tones of hope and recovery.

“2021 fills me with optimism,” Wasserman said. “We are determined — as a Board of Supervisors … and an organization of 20,000 hardworking people and a community of 2 million  people — to move forward, to overcome the adversities we face.”

But some who tuned in didn’t share the optimism.

Neil McGuire of Los Gatos said his two sons, both high school students, have been struggling with their mental health because of pandemic restrictions. New data shows high school dropout rates have surged in Santa Clara County amid the pandemic, disproportionately hurting people of color.

“In addition to letting them play, let them get back to school as well,” McGuire said. “It’s absolutely critical for both our boys. They’re missing the prime of their lives and there’s possible permanent damage.”

Homeless advocates pointed to encampment sweeps that have occurred as recently as last month, despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending encampments should stay in place.

Clearing encampments can cause unhoused residents to disperse and break connections with service providers, which increases the potential for spreading COVID-19, the CDC says.

San Jose resident Robert Aguirre, who was once homeless, lamented the sweeps and the county’s rising unhoused population.

“It’s not healthy for them, it’s not healthy for us and it creates a lot of disturbance in people’s lives,” Aguirre said.

Wasserman blamed the past year’s job losses, evictions, decimation of livelihoods and school closures on COVID-19, calling it “a virus that was outpaced only by fear, anger and blame.”

Wasserman’s speech was a marked difference from years past where residents and community leaders gathered in the board chambers to hear the remarks.

“Despite the damage to our collective health and economy, unleashed by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, the state of our county is strong and resilient,” Wasserman said.

 

But the challenges of the past year are hard to play down. Wasserman acknowledged the county’s massive $100 million deficit even after significant reductions over the past six months. He acknowledged the work of County Executive Jeff Smith and his office, which Wasserman said has resulted in very few layoffs.

Last summer, supervisors faced a shortfall of $200 million to $500 million. They closed the gap by eliminating more than 500 positions, many of them vacated through an early retirement program.

Wasserman also lamented the county’s lack of vaccine supply to date, and uncertainty of supply on a week-to-week basis.  About 99,000 vaccine appointments are scheduled in the county over the next week, and Wasserman said the county has the capacity to consistently vaccinate 100,000 residents every week if there’s enough supply.

According to public data, 355,000 county residents have received their first dose of the vaccine, while more than 155,000 have received both doses. The county in January announced an ambitious goal to vaccinate 85% of eligible residents by Aug. 1.

“We are dramatically challenged by state and federal systems and policies that have thus far restricted the (supply of) vaccines we are fully prepared to utilize and administer,” Wasserman said.

Ultimately, Wasserman said, a rosy 2021 depends on the continued hard work of every resident.

“We will work hard together to lift each other and our community up,” Wasserman said. “To heal from this pandemic, to heal economically, to heal individually and as a community. To heal from both recent and longstanding ills and to return to normalcy.”

To watch the full State of the County address on YouTube, click here.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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