A $20 million contract to increase vaccination rates through neighborhood clinics was abruptly delayed during Tuesday’s Orange County Board of Supervisors public meeting, following questions from Voice of OC about whether the approach would leave local community clinics behind.

It’s unclear if the county will contract with the existing network of nonprofit local health care clinics — and the community organizations that support them — or create a new neighborhood vaccination network with the $20 million contract. 

Last Friday, Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers, raised concerns about the health clinics not being included in the discussion. 

[Read: OC Community Clinics Criticize County Effort to Keep Them Out of the Loop on $20 Million Vaccination Expansion]

Families Together of Orange County, a community clinic in Tustin and Garden Grove, also said they haven’t been contacted by county officials about the contract.

“We haven’t been reached out to, along with the Coalition of Community Health Centers. We back the coalition 100% and they back us. As Isabel mentioned, we have everything in place to be able to not just continue with boosters in the fall, but to keep our services running that are providing vaccines right now,” said Cassie Rossel, spokeswoman for the local health clinic, Families Together of Orange County. 

The clinics have been key in lowering positivity rates and boosting vaccination rates in OC’s hardest hit communities through their network and partnerships with various community organizations.

Read: Community Efforts to Bring COVID Vaccines to OC’s Hardest Hit Neighborhoods Are Paying Off

In a Tuesday phone interview, Rossel said she hopes Families Together, along with the clinic coalition, will be brought to the discussion table. 

“Obviously we’re open to those conversations. We’re not trying to talk badly about anyone here,” Rossel said. “They just need to be thinking about what’s logical here. It’s not logical to bypass a network that’s already in place.” 

County officials haven’t said much about the proposed contract, other than they’re not sure who the vendors are. 

“The OC Health Care Agency (HCA) will be asking the Orange County Board of Supervisors at this Tuesday’s meeting to allow us to extend a Request for Information to interested parties. There are no vendors under consideration at this time,” said Dr. Margaret Bredehoft, deputy director of the county Health Care Agency, in a Monday email.

County officials didn’t answer questions Tuesday about why the contract was pushed back. 

They also haven’t answered questions about if county health officials struck up conversations with the clinics or not about the $20 million contract. 

Rossel said it makes more sense to bolster the existing network of health clinics than create a new one. 

“It’s a bit silly to start over from scratch. It seems like not a good use of resources,” Rossel said. “It’s disappointing to not be contacted yet when we’re the sixth highest vaccine provider in the county. So that’s something we’re hoping they reach out to us and bring in community health centers, especially when we’re playing such a big role in the community vaccine efforts.”

Families Together has administered more vaccines than some pharmacies and hospitals, according to county Health Care Agency data.

Rossel said the clinic has administered at least 40,000 doses as of Tuesday.

A majority of Supervisors didn’t bring up the $20 million contract during their Tuesday meeting.

Supervisor Don Wagner, early in the meeting, noted the clinics’ concerns and publicly sought to assure them they would not be left behind.

“Any of the community clinics that are providing services …  are absolutely eligible,” Wagner said. “There is no community clinic being cut out.” 

During Supervisors’ COVID update, OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau acknowledged the county’s switch to a smaller vaccination clinic approach. 

“I think we are reaching the point where our people would come out for the vaccine if you make it convenient,” Chau told Supervisors. 

OC Supervisors also noted their support for the shift in vaccine strategy.

“I think it’s a great idea to continue with the mobile pods as well. I know we weren’t getting the volume through the super pods and it just costs a lot of money for the super pod sites,” Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said. 

County officials are expected to close all the supersites by June 6. 

“It’s really the biggest bang for our buck — going into the community and taking advantage of the infrastructure we have in place,” Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do said.

Some residents have been showing up to meetings increasingly, with many protesting against what they say are mandated vaccinations and passports. 

It’s something Chau has repeatedly pushed back against — saying the county won’t force vaccines or mandate passports on anyone.

Read: OC Supervisors Cancel Digital Coronavirus Vaccine Records, Hundreds of People Rail Against Vaccine Passports

This week, Supervisor Katrina Foley along with her colleagues, apologized for some of the recent criticisms and claims against Chau — including a recent protest in front of his house last week. 

“Thank you for your strength of character because not many people would think they’re going to become a health officer and have to endure protests at their homes, beratings at public meetings and asking for him to be fired,” Foley said. 

Chau responded, “All five of you, thank you.” 

But, he said, it’s not the worst of what he’s gone through. 

“I’m sorry, you bullied the wrong guy. I’ve seen worse and I’ve heard worse. So you can’t do anything to me — that’s that,” Chau said. 

Meanwhile, Orange County’s hospitalizations continue to hold steady.

As of Tuesday, 72 people were hospitalized, including nine in intensive care units, according to the OC Health Care Agency

Chau said the county has the best virus metrics — positivity rates and cases per 100,000 people — among California’s large counties. 

“Our numbers are the best … out of all the large counties,” he said. 

The virus has now killed 5,054 people — more than nine times the flu kills on a yearly average. 

Some people said COVID was no worse than the flu during public comment sessions.

Chau took issue with that during his COVID update Tuesday.

“It’s just wrong. Absolutely wrong,” he said. 

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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