High-risk populations the focus of COVID forum

The state-run COVID-19 community testing site at the Calexico Community Center on Thursday in Calexico. This site is being reassessed and may be moved to another location. PHOTO VINCENT OSUNA

EL CENTRO — The Imperial County Public Health Department was all ears during a COVID-19 community forum it held Thursday afternoon.

ICPHD held the forum to hear from the public so that it can identify ways to improve services for high-risk populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community members shared ideas on how some services could be improved for local high-risk populations during the forum, which took place via Zoom.

The health department also wanted to hear from local agencies or groups that work with vulnerable high-risk populations, such as agricultural workers and homeless people, as it was recently awarded about $400,000 in grant funds.

ICPHD aims to use the funds to support quarantine services, wrap-around services, and public information and outreach services.

“Please keep an eye out because it will be going pretty quickly,” ICPHD Deputy Director Rosyo Ramirez said of the grant funds. “Expect to hear something in the next one or two weeks.”

Ramirez was facilitator of the forum, which drew in about 55 viewers.

While Ramirez gave a few remarks, the community forum was geared toward soliciting public comment.

“We are here to hear you out, and we want to be able to support the community as much as we can,” she said.

A major topic of discussion during the forum was farm workers.

Alex Cardenas, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Imperial County, expressed concern for farm workers who test positive for COVID but do not qualify for wrap-around services through their insurance.

Cardenas explained that these workers are being offered hotel vouchers so they can self-quarantine; however, they have no wrap-around services to help them while they are quarantined.

“The organizations that want to make a difference are having to go to private philanthropy to support those efforts,” he said.

Cardenas observed that farm workers are an important population, as fall harvest season (the peak season in Imperial County) is right around the corner.

Furthermore, Cardenas pointed out that the county has a fixed number of hotels.

 “So if we’re anticipating providing hotel vouchers, there may be an inventory situation,” he said.

Local resident Esther Bejarano floated the idea of making hand-washing stations available for farm workers at some point during their commute to work.

“The only time they have hand-washing stations is when they reach the harvesting site,” she said.

Bejarano said farm workers typically travel to work by carpooling.

“So that’s where they’re becoming infected,” she said. “They have to take off their mask and they have to eat under their roof inside their vehicle because there’s not enough shading.”

Bejarano said she has spoken with more than 300 farm workers, both documented and undocumented.

“I would recommend that education is crucial, especially in the Calexico area,” she said of farm workers being properly educated on COVID safety precautions.

Alejandro Marron, an addiction counselor in El Centro, said that a common problem that homeless people have is finding a sanitary place where they can spend the night.

Because his organization does not have the funding to provide hotel vouchers, Marron asked whether there is public funding available that could be used for buying personal care packs containing razors, face masks and other supplies for the homeless.

Local resident Robert Gonzalez expressed concern with some testing sites in the county closing.

“To close testing sites at the same time that we’re reopening might be jumping the gun,” he said.

Two state testing sites are up and running in the county — the Veterans’ Memorial Hall in Imperial and the other at the Calexico Community Center in Calexico.

ICPHD Deputy Director Ramirez explained that the Calexico site is being reassessed and may be moved to another location, as the community center may not be available in the future.

However, Ramirez added there is an increased opportunity to expand testing through various types of sites — not just the state test sites.

“More and more providers are making testing available,” she said. “Pharmacies are now gearing out to making them available as well.”

ICPHD will continue accepting comments and suggestions from the public until noon Wednesday. Comments can be emailed to rosyoramirez@co.imperial.ca.us.

Staff Writer Vincent Osuna can be reached at vosuna@ivpressonline.com or 760-337-3442.

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