Local health clinics and community organizations in OC are largely left out of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed spending plan, despite praise from Newsom for boosting coronavirus vaccinations to the hardest hit neighborhoods.

“There were a lot of things absent from this budget. It’s quite striking in the middle of this pandemic,” said Ron Coleman, managing director of policy at the California Pan Ethnic Health Network.

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The clinics and community organizations were critical in reducing coronavirus positivity rates in OC’s hardest hit, often minority communities. 

Now, the groups are key in boosting vaccination rates in the most impacted neighborhoods, often minority neighborhoods. 

“There was absolutely no new investments related to racial equity in public health,” Coleman said in a Monday interview. “No help for community based organizations who work on health equity. It’s completely absent.”

Nancy Mejia, chief program officer for Latino Health Access, said their Santa Ana-based community organization needs more funding to keep vaccinating people and bringing various resources into the hardest hit neighborhoods. 

“We need resources that are coming down from the federal government, the state and the county,” Mejia said in a Wednesday phone interview. “This is going to have a huge impact on people who have already been suffering long term diseases. We also don’t know the long term impact for folks who suffered through COVID.” 

Public health departments, like the OC Health Care Agency, are also left out of Newsom’s spending plan. 

“We know that our public health infrastructure has been grossly underfunded, which is why we see a breakdown in certain communities who are left out of the health care system,” Coleman said.

Over the past few months, state officials have repeatedly said the clinics, community organizations and local health departments are a cornerstone of statewide vaccination efforts and have indicated more funding would be coming.

Yet mentions of those groups were largely absent during Newom’s numerous news conferences last week promoting his spending proposal. 

The Governor, who’s facing a recall election at some point this year, is proposing funding for schools, homelessness programs, small businesses loans, expanding Medi-Cal to undocumented seniors and a host of programs to help jumpstart the economy.

The proposals are part of Newsom’s $100 billion spending plan, dubbed “The California Comeback Plan,” which stems from a state surplus and federal bailout money. It’s all part of the roughly $268 billion May revised budget state legislators still need to vote on.

“We know that these community based organizations serve such a strong purpose during the pandemic. They’re trusteed organizations that know how to talk to communities and talk to them in a culturally appropriate way and in their languages,” Coleman said. 

Newsom’s budget proposal instead relies on the nearly $1 billion coming from federal relief money to help bolster funding to local health clinics throughout the state, according to the proposal.

“It’s been really significant that we’ve been able to partner with community clinics who are able to deploy this model, then send our promotoras (community health workers) to areas that they know very well,” Mejia said. “That’s our model — you have to make it really easy for people to get the shot. It has to be in people’s neighborhoods, it has to be on their way home.”

Dr. Jay Lee, chief medical officer for the local health clinic, Share Our Selves, previously told Voice of OC that community clinics are able to answer people’s concerns about the vaccines, compared to the supersites. 

“[Staff will] call me on the walkie talkie and I’ll walk over and I’ll introduce myself and say I’m the chief medical officer and I’m happy to answer any questions you might have. And I’ve gotten all sorts of questions while people are getting ready to get vaccinated,” Lee said in a phone interview earlier this month. 

Lee said those consultations the clinics are able to give people help boost vaccination rates. 

“For the most part, that reassurance, that sort of eye contact — that interaction enhances someone’s trust of the vaccine,” Lee said.

Newsom’s budget proposal also lacks any new investment for public health departments across the state. 

Numerous public health experts and medical leaders have called for more public health funding, pointing to the sluggish pandemic response as a byproduct of health departments across the country being historically underfunded.  

During a Friday news conference, reporters repeatedly asked why Newsom didn’t include new funding for public health departments during the pandemic as part of the $100 billion spending plan or the overall May revised budget proposal.

He didn’t directly answer the questions. 

Instead, Newsom said health departments should take a closer look at the budget. 

“I also hope they enjoy the benefits of the incredible leadership of the Biden administration,” he said, referring to incoming federal funding. “We put $300 million into public hospitals in this budget. Again I’m confused by people quickly opining on this budget they may not have had a chance to review … there’s many other investments in this space.” 

Yet, there are no county-run public hospitals in OC. 

Orange County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said public health departments and health officers weren’t involved in planning talks surrounding the spending proposal.

“I would have liked to participate in the conversation ahead of time to understand the reason why local public health departments infrastructure building fund was not included,” Chau said. “We (county health officers) have been advocating for it.”

Newsom told reporters he’ll be negotiating with legislators about potentially increasing funding to public health departments. 

Meanwhile, Orange County’s virus hospitalizations keep declining. 

As of Wednesday, 70 people were hospitalized, including 15 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

The virus has now killed 5,034 people — more than nine times the flu kills on a yearly average. 

COVID deaths surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC. 

It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively. 

Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.

Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest state health data.

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.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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