EL CENTRO – Despite the noticeable surge of positive COVID cases emerging throughout the Valley, new reports from the Imperial County Public Health Department suggest COVID related hospitalizations and deaths will not be as dire as last year.
“Jan. 5 of last year we had 172 COVID positive hospitalized patients, this time around 64 COVID positive hospitalizations,” said Public Health Director Janette Angulo during an El Centro City Council special meeting held at noon on Monday.
One reason for the “huge difference” between this year and last was vaccinations, explained Angulo.
“We can contribute this to vaccination,” she said. “Vaccination became available mid-December for a limited supply, for the general public started rolling out more so in February and March.”
When it comes to vaccination rates, Imperial County has been praised nationally for its ability to fully vaccinate 83 percent of the county’s population.
The successful efforts made by community members and stakeholders to make sure vulnerable populations had access to the COVID-19 vaccine was detailed in a commentary published on Jan. 4 in the journal for Environmental Research and Public Health by Maria Elena Martinez, Jesse N. Nodora, Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, Noe C. Crespo and Adolphe Edward, chief executive officer of El Centro Regional Medical Center.
“While some regions in the country followed the Field of Dreams concept of ‘If you build it, they will come,’ Imperial County knew that more had to be done to increase vaccine access,” the authors stated in their commentary.
The commentary included commentary by experts from the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego, San Diego State University and El Centro Regional Medical Center. They aimed to compare San Diego and Imperial counties efforts to achieve high equitable access and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines among Latino populations to counties elsewhere in California with a similar demographic. The authors highlighted Imperial County in particular for its success in leading with a clear focus on vaccine equity efforts.
“A strong network of clinics, hospitals, and the public health sector alongside nonprofits, local businesses, and other groups within and outside the county, including San Diego, came together to provide vaccinations,” the authors wrote in the journal.
This network involved setting up resources to take vaccination directly into priority communities and transporting people to vaccination sites, detailed the authors. Buses took agricultural workers to vaccination sites, malls set up vaccination stations and public health workers delivered vaccines in remote rural areas.
Most importantly, locals maintained a strong advocacy for vaccine accessibility and availability for all individuals regardless of their residential status. This ensured individuals could get vaccinated without having to show proof of identification or residential address, explained the commentary.
This was “crucial” given that about 275,000 United States citizens, including 30,000 retired U.S. military veterans, live within 10 miles across the Mexico border, noted the authors.
“These individuals routinely cross into the United States for care, including vaccinations,” the authors stated in their commentary. “Reducing the barrier of residential status increases accessibility and promotes trust, resulting in wider vaccine coverage.”
Additionally, the public health department’s use of social media and health education campaigns promoted in both English and Spanish helped to create a trusted comfort zone for various demographics in the community.
The commentary concluded that Imperial County along with San Diego County “provided their Hispanic residents equitable and unbiased vaccination” and suggested that “these strategies can be used to guide the delivery and access to other public health and cancer preventive services, such as human papillomavirus vaccination and cancer screening.”
Currently a total of 141,783 individuals, 5 years old or older, are fully vaccinated in Imperial County. Given that Imperial County has a population of 179,702 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the ongoing COVID surge is most concerning for those individuals not yet vaccinated, Edward explained.
“Vaccination has helped us … as we continue to increase vaccination we can actually make a difference on the outcomes,” Edward said during Monday’s special meeting. “Vaccination decreases the critical care burden.”
Edward explained that although the usefulness of vaccinations may not be as visible to the public as it is in the local hospitals, information collected within the last two years has demonstrated that when an individual is fully vaccinated they are significantly more protected than individuals that are unvaccinated. He also noted that a majority of those currently hospitalized are not vaccinated and the symptoms expressed by those who are vaccinated are substantially less critical than those unvaccinated.
As of Thursday, a total of 38,661 individuals have tested positive for COVID or its variant forms. There are 2,890 active cases in the county with 811 deaths reported as a result of contracting COVID, according to the Public Health Department.
The department also reported 1,102 variants of concern among those testing positive. The more destructive of the variants, the Omicron has presented itself in six local individuals with the rest of the COVID variants represented by Delta variant, the county Public Health Department reported on Monday.
“We are always cautioning folks, [the omicron variant] is actually a very rapid and vicious virus more than when it mutated, more than what we knew about delta,” Dr. Edward said during the meeting. “We have six cases, I’m sure we are going to continue to see them as they come through.”
Symptoms for both the omicron and delta variants of COVID are very similar to those symptoms already associated with COVID-19 including full body tiredness, high fever potentially exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a dry cough that lacks mucus and difficulty breathing, El Centro interim Fire Chief Cedric Ceseña explained during the El Centro special meeting.
“Some variants have had very mild symptoms while others are harder on the body,” Ceseña said. “Omicron seems to be a little less severe in particular with people who have been vaccinated.”
From Dec. 29 to Jan. 4, Public Health reported 155.9 new positive cases per day per 100,000 individuals. These cases represent a 31.6 percent positivity rate according to reports released by Public Health Thursday morning.
Additionally the Health Officer Order regarding quarantine guidelines was recently amended on Tuesday to clarify that boosted or vaccinated, but not yet booster eligible individuals who are exposed to COVID-19 are no longer required to stay home from work if a negative diagnostic test is obtained within three to five days after last exposure to a case.
They can also return to work if the employee wears a well-fitting mask around others for a total of 10 days and the employee continues to have no symptoms. This amendment does not apply to COVID-exposed individuals who are unvaccinated or vaccinated and eligible but have not yet received a boosted dose, according to Public Health.
For those individuals interested in becoming vaccinated, the county Department of Social Services will continue its community vaccine clinics at 2895 S. Fourth St. in El Centro. Two Pfizer clinics for individuals 5 and older are scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. An additional Moderna and Johnson and Johnson clinic will be available for individuals 18-years-old or older on Wednesdays from 1 to 5 p.m.
Community members can also learn more about vaccinations by visiting www.myturn.ca.gov or www.vaccines.gov. County Public Health recommends scheduling an appointment by calling (888) 634-1123 or by using the United Health Group website lhi.care/covidtesting
Public Health also releases information on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at their handle and icphd.org.
Public Health is seeing an increase in COVID testing at both OptumServe testing sites, Brawley and a mobile unit, said Andrea Bowers, Public Health spokesperson. As of last week, the fixed site had a 132 percent increase, while the mobile testing site had a 237 percent increase.
A second lane was added to the mobile site along with four National Guard staff. The addition of the second lane provides for an increase in testing capacity from 132 to 264 per day. The agency has also requested the addition of a second lane and an increase in operational hours for the fix testing site in Brawley. Approval is pending.
Asked if the county has considered adding testing sites, Bowers replied, “Imperial County Officials continue to monitor the ever evolving situation closely and continues to work the State to ensure adequate testing capacity in Imperial County.”
Testing will be available today at the Hector Mario Esquer Building, 850 Eady Ave., Calexico, from 7 a.m.-6:30 p.m.