Now that they’ve identified the problem – hot spots where coronavirus cases are growing faster than in the rest of Orange County – a partnership of local government and nonprofit officials is hitting it with everything they’ve got in the hope of reversing the trend.
Mobile COVID-19 testing clinics in affected neighborhoods, a multilingual call center to answer residents’ questions about the disease, free hotel rooms for people who can’t self-isolate at home, and student “health ambassadors” who can educate peers and parents are all part of an effort officials are calling the Latino Health Equity Initiative.
Announced last week, the initiative is a collaboration between the county, local schools and nonprofits that targets several zip codes in Anaheim and Santa Ana where data shows higher rates of coronavirus infection.
As of last week, Orange County Health Care Agency Research Manager Curtis Condon said the cities of Santa Ana and Anaheim had more than 400 COVID cases per 100,000 residents, compared with just under 288 cases per 100,000 in the county as a whole. And in June, a number of zip codes in those cities were reporting at least 60 new cases per 100,000 people per week, more than anywhere else in the county.
Those neighborhoods have several things in common, officials say: the families who live there have lower incomes and less access to health care; they’re more densely packed, giving the virus more chances to spread; and many residents there work “essential” jobs that require them to go out in public to earn a paycheck.
“Our folks don’t have the ability to stay home, they don’t have a nest egg, they don’t have savings to be able to work from home so they have to be out there, and they’re doing the work that many of us benefit from,” Santa Ana Councilman Vicente Sarmiento said during a press conference about the initiative.
Calling COVID-19 a “disease of disparities,” Bernadette Boden-Albala, dean of UC Irvine’s public health program, said when the zip codes with the most coronavirus cases are sorted by income level, the fastest growth of cases is in the lowest income neighborhoods, even when residents get tested at the same rate as in higher income areas.
The demand for testing was obvious on Monday, July 6, when initiative partner Families Together of Orange County Community Health Center set up a mobile clinic at Walker Elementary School in Santa Ana.
A line of cars, full of residents who had made advance appointments, stretched around the block as people waited their turn to drive through and get swabbed. Families Together Director of Programs David Becerra said the clinic could test up to 340 people and he expected to hit that number before the 4 p.m. closing time.
A couple of hours after opening, the clinic’s doctors and emergency medical technicians had seen most of the 50 walk-ins too, but Santa Ana resident Jasmine Castro, 26, was near the end of the line and still waiting.
She’s been isolating herself at home with symptoms – fever, chills and loss of taste and smell – and trying to find a place to get tested for two weeks, she said.
What surprised her isn’t that so many people showed up to the clinic, it’s that testing is “not easily available for people that need it,” she said. “It’s baffling to me.”
The nonprofit Latino Health Access, which is spearheading the initiative, hopes to address that problem by holding more mobile clinics, but also by sending trained community members called promotoras into neighborhoods armed with masks, hand sanitizer and information about symptoms, testing and how to get assistance with places to quarantine or lost income when people are infected and shouldn’t go to work.
Santa Ana and Anaheim schools and churches, which tend to be more trusted by the community than city or county government, have also been enlisted to the cause. Anaheim Union High School District Superintendent Michael Matsuda said the district is aiming to train 150 young people as student health ambassadors who can dispel the idea that their generation won’t catch the virus, and teach their families best practices for mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.
Seeing increases in the percentage of coronavirus tests that come back positive and the number of people hospitalized with the disease in recent weeks has alarmed Orange County supervisors, who a month ago were arguing over how quickly to reopen businesses and whether people should have to wear face coverings.
Supervisors Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee, who represent the areas with COVID-19 hot spots, helped explain the Latino Health Equity Initiative to the media in a June 30 press conference.
“If this works, it’ll be a pilot program that we can apply to other hot spots throughout the county,” Chaffee said.
“It’s very important that we respect each other and care for each other,” he said. “To fail to do that is to lose the battle.”
Source: Orange County Register