California public health officials are going to target more testing to poor communities around the state, which are hit hardest by the pandemic, at a time when there’s a renewed focus on inequalities.
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At a Friday news conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a new state-run testing facility in Valencia will be operational by winter and is slated to handle up to 150,000 tests a day.
One of the first goals is to get a bulk of that testing into the hardest hit neighborhoods across the state, said Dr. Gil Chavez, deputy director of infectious disease center at the state Department of Public Health.
“Our goal of the testing task force is that any community that is impacted by the pandemic has good testing. In California we know that people of color — African Americans and Latinos are impacted,” he said at the news conference. “So we want to make sure those communities have prompt access to testing.”
Secretary of the state Human and Health Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said the increased testing, along with contact tracing and quarantining efforts, will help smooth things out in the hardest hit neighborhoods.
“We’ve been tracking the disproportionate impact of COVID on communities of color, on older Californians, on people who are living in more crowded living conditions … and this represents an opportunity to get one of those key tools in there to reduce transmission,” Ghaly said.
The testing center comes a day after OC health officer and county Health Care Agency Director, Dr. Clayton Chau, announced he’s creating a director position at the agency aimed at addressing the pandemic’s impact to underserved communities throughout Orange County.
It won’t stop there, Chau said at a Thursday news conference.
The director is expected to continue partnerships with a host of community-based organizations to address chronic health conditions in poor neighborhoods, like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Chau also said the director will “ensure that diversity, equity and inclusion are incorporated in the decision making processes.”
“We are looking for a dedicated and experienced social justice professional,” he said.
In a similar effort by state public health officials, the county Health Care Agency partnered with the Santa Ana-based nonprofit, Latino Health Access in June and nine Asian American and Pacific Islander (API) community organizations earlier this month to bring testing to the hardest hit OC communities.
“As a community person and a community based organization leader, I’ve been thrilled because I live and breathe the Asian community. I do know the testing landscape wasn’t very friendly to non-English speakers for a while,” said Ellen Ahn in a Friday phone interview, executive director of the Buena Park-based Korean Community Services.
While the Asian American community isn’t disproportionately impacted by countywide data, there are areas of the community with high testing positivity rates.
“There are certain pockets in our community, especially the Pacific Islander community … that the positivity rates and death rates are really out the door. So we’re trying to tackle two things. One is to really work with these smaller groups that have experienced more death and disease than the average,” Ahn said, adding the API groups are also breaking down language barriers.
Countywide, Latinos make up 35 percent of the population, while having nearly half — 48% — of all cases. The Latino community also has over 43 percent of virus deaths.
Shortly after the pandemic began, numerous epidemiologists, public health experts and sociologists have told Voice of OC the disproportionate impact on Latinos is because of overcrowded housing, lack of access to health care and not having the ability to work from home.
Ahn said she’s been speaking with Chau about the efforts to address not just coronavirus inequalities, but the chronic health conditions plaguing many of the poor communities.
She also said Latino Health Access CEO, America Bracho, has also been part of those conversations.
“This outreach and this offer of wanting to hear community voices, at least the leaders of the API task force and the Latino health equity initiative is very exciting. And to hear this work will go beyond COVID is amazing,” Ahn said.
Ahn said the API organizations are working hand in glove with Latino Health Access.
“The partnership the API community is developing with Latino Health Access is great,” she said. “There’s coordination, so it’s not siloed. We’re trying to bring our two efforts together, so if there’s a Spanish speaker who would benefit more from LHA’s promotores and we would do a very warm hand off to them and vice versa.”
Since March, the virus has killed 1,475 county residents out of 59,718 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. Of that number, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, over 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 OC residents annually.
As of Friday, 182 people were hospitalized for the virus, including 61 in intensive care units.
Chau noted the county’s increasing cases during Thursday’s news conference.
“Hopefully we are not looking at a second wave,” he said.
Cases are rising statewide also.
“The case rates are going up here in the state of California,” Newsom said at Friday’s news conference.
He said the daily new cases have increased over the past week.
“That number is trending higher, it was in the middle 3,000’s last week, we’re now moving back up a little over 4,000 this week. Again this is something we anticipated,” Newsom said, adding increased testing efforts could play a role in the upticks.
Newsom also said the new $25 million testing site will not only bring more testing to the state’s hardest hit communities, but it will also lower the costs of testing by up to 80 percent.
The current average for a coronavirus test is about $150, he said.
“We’re going to be able to get these tests down to $30.78” when the testing center hits 150,000 tests a day, Newsom said.
The total cost of the new testing program is $100 million and Newsom said the individual tests will help pay back that taxpayer money.
“For every test that’s conducted, $5.51 is set aside to reimburse the upfront costs.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio