Orange County community health clinics, who are vaccinating the county’s most vulnerable against the coronavirus, face an uncertain future as questions surface about funding from the state and federal government.
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The clinics, along with school districts and community organizations, have been a key component in bringing testing, education and vaccines to the most vulnerable neighborhoods throughout OC.
But some worry how long the clinics will be able to keep up the work without an influx of money.
“We have not received any funding for that whatsoever. The clinics have had to alter operations to fight the coronavirus,” said Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers. “Would they be able to do more if there was funding available so you can ramp up strike teams on a more frequent basis? Sure.”
Instead, much of the money has gone to new organizations and bigger groups, Becerra said.
“The contracts that the money has paid for not just in our county, but across the state, has been to new start ups, new organizations that are all of a sudden interested in serving this community and not necessarily been around like the clinics,” Becerra said in a Thursday phone interview.
She questions how long community clinics can hold out without funding.
“It’s very worrisome. Because, without contracts and ongoing funding and support, we don’t know how sustainable this is going to be,” Becerra said.
State health officials have a renewed focus on vaccinating the pandemic’s hardest-hit residents in the state’s 400 zip codes and have largely praised community clinics.
But that praise hasn’t materialized into funding.
Federal funding could be coming.
President Joe Biden signed the $1.9 trillion virus bailout bill Thursday, which includes $42 billion slated for California, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Yet it’s unclear how much of that will help fund the community clinics.
Under last year’s bailout package, some community clinics received anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000 to help bolster testing and isolation resources, according to a financial report from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.
Christy Ward, CEO of Share Our Selves Orange County community clinic, said she’s worried about a lack of funding, while focusing on vaccinating as many people as possible.
Ward said she’s not alone.
“There are a lot of questions across the state from other CEOs (of community clinics) that are wanting answers about many things,” Ward said in a Thursday phone interview. “I think that from our perspective, it’s all about the availability of vaccines. Which is a huge problem right now for us. Of course we are always concerned about making it financially viable.”
But she said she’s keeping her hopes up amid vaccine supply and funding issues.
“We believe at some point the money will follow. Right now our biggest focus is how do we get the vaccines that we can get right into the community,” Ward said.
Meanwhile, there’s still outstanding concerns over Blue Shield’s expected takeover of the statewide vaccine distribution system.
Counties and community clinics are required to have a contract with the insurance giant in order to stay in the supply pipeline.
County health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said he expects the Blue Shield contract to be discussed by the county Board of Supervisors at their March 23 meeting.
But the community clinics still haven’t seen any contracts.
Becerra said clinics may have to start backing off first-dose vaccinations because of the uncertainty surrounding the supply chain, which could force clinics to point people to the mass vaccination sites — many of whom aren’t able to get there.
“We have weekly discussions with our state association and my colleagues around the state … and, that I know of, only one consortium in the northern part of the state has gotten a contract for their health center members. There’s mixed feelings around the state whether to continue to push as hard as we have on vaccines,” she said.
The uncertainty might already be affecting local vaccination efforts.
“Because we are in limbo, we are hesitant at this point to continue at the fast pace that we’re going with on the first shots,” Becerra said. “We want to make sure that any vaccine event we do is only if we’re assured that the second shots are going to be available … the last thing we want to do is turn patients away for their second shot and send them to a super POD.”
Meanwhile, OC’s hospitalizations remain low compared to the height of the second wave in late December and early January, when over 2,000 people were hospitalized with the virus.
As of Thursday, 252 people were hospitalized, including 67 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
But deaths continue to climb.
The virus has now killed 4,379 people, including 33 new deaths reported today.
That’s roughly eight times more people dead than the flu kills on a yearly average.
Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively.
The virus is also in the ballpark of average annual cancer deaths.
According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio