Some progress has been made in recent weeks regarding health inequities in Calexico pertaining to COVID-19 testing and, ultimately, preparing to vaccinate some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens, seniors age 65 and older. | PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
CALEXICO — Since concerns over inequities in COVID testing and, ultimately, access to vaccinations for Calexico residents were raised a couple of weeks ago, much activity has occurred on both fronts.
For the fourth time since Jan. 15, the state’s mobile-testing bus has been scheduled for stops in the border city, with the most recent visits occurring on Wednesday, Jan. 27, at the One Stop Career Center parking lot on Heber Avenue, and a visit planned for Friday, Jan. 29, at the Calexico 10 Theatre parking lot on Scaroni Avenue from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Perhaps more significant is that nearly 500 Calexicans, ages 65 and older, have already signed up through the Calexico Wellness Center to be on the list to receive vaccinations as soon as the health clinic receives its first allotment of vaccine as an official provider signed on with the state.
Calexico Wellness Chief Executive Officer Blanca Grijalva said she was supposed to receive an update on vaccine distribution from the county Public Health Department during a meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 27, as to when the scarce doses of vaccine might be delivered to Calexico.
Still, news that Calexico Wellness, and Vo Neighborhood Medical Clinic, which has a clinic in Calexico, have signed on with the state as a vaccine provider brings hope.
“We are calling our patients to ask them if they want the vaccine. If yes, we tell them we will have a drive through,” Grijalva said Wednesday morning. “If (they have) no transportation, we will have a walk-through (clinic). And (conduct) home visits.
“Right now, we are putting together a list of people calling our clinic who are not our patients. We are asking who their primary care doctor is, so we can collaborate with them,” Grijalva said, “and send them the progress notes once they get the vaccines.”
Grijalva added that Calexico Wellness has signed up nearly 500 people on a list to be vaccinated, starting with patients in their 90s, and “working it down to 65 years old,” she said.
As the second-largest city in Imperial County, Calexico has been the hardest-hit by far since the start of the pandemic. On Jan. 27, according to data from the county Public Health Department, Calexico had just a shade under 7,000 total cases of the illness and 170 total deaths, more than the county seat and the Valley’s largest city, El Centro (6,680 total cases; 161 total deaths).
Fortunately, Calexico is no longer the leader in active cases of COVID (207) as of Wednesday; that distinction goes to El Centro (258), followed by Brawley (212).
Yet in terms of health equity, such a development might not matter.
With seniors, those 65 and older, deemed to be the most at-risk group in totality by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and thus thrust to the top of the vaccination priority list by the state, there is still much work to be done to level the playing field, according to data shared by Calexico City Council member Raul Ureña during the Jan. 20 council meeting.
Referring to both testing and vaccination, Ureña said, “more older people by far get tested in Calexico than other cities,” and Calexico has the largest elderly population, he added.
Add on top those issues that Calexico has a higher population of Hispanic residents by what Ureña said is “14 percentage points,” the lack of access and inequities become a racial justice issue as well.
The entire inequity issue with testing and vaccinations for Calexico was brought into sharp focus when the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition issued a statement criticizing Imperial County government officials on access to testing specifically in a Jan. 16 press release.
However, county officials and coalition representatives had the chance to meet face to face late last week and discuss the concerns, some of which seem to have been successfully addressed with the additional testing dates for the mobile bus.
“It was a very informative meeting, I think, for both sides. We talked about partnerships and the need for the collaboration on both sides of the house (county and city of Calexico) to make sure those (testing) resources are available,” Imperial County Executive Officer Tony Rouhotas Jr. said Jan. 21, a few hours after he and Calexico-area Imperial County Supervisor Jesus Escobar met with coalition members, including spokesperson Luis Flores.
“It was very much a collaborative thing,” Flores said Jan. 21, referring to his discussions with the county on the importance of keeping city officials informed and engaged in planning and outreach in addition to county and coalition efforts.
Overall, Flores characterized the Jan. 21 meeting as “very productive” and came away with a greater understanding of how stretched thin the county’s resources already are.
Much of the group’s conversation focused on how grassroots organizations like the coalition can work collaboratively with the county to address the difficulties related to COVID-19 that exist in Calexico, he said.
One obstacle to enhancing stakeholders’ response in the city is its limited number of healthcare providers. The COVID-19 vaccine must be administered by an authorized healthcare provider, Flores said.
To be authorized to administer the COVID-19 vaccine, a provider must have undergone training and registered with the state. While some local providers were in the process of being trained, at the time of the interview with Flores, the only provider authorized to administer the vaccine in Calexico was Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo, he said.
“We don’t have a lot of providers that are registered,” Flores said then.
The group further discussed the possibility of setting up mass COVID-19 testing sites such as the one established at the Imperial County Fairgrounds. Flores said he assured the county officials on Jan. 21 that the coalition is ready to assist with helping identify such sites as well as helping notify the community once a mass-testing plan is approved.
Those present for the meeting agreed on the importance of sharing accurate information with the community in as timely a manner as possible to help tamp down any misinformation related to testing and vaccination efforts.
Rouhotas said the county and the coalition did not see eye to eye on every detail, but that they “were 95 percent” in agreement on most issues.
Although the county Public Health Department has continually kept its social media pages up to date on mobile-testing site locations Valleywide, Ureña on Jan. 20 said the coalition has taken to producing Calexico-specific testing notifications on its social media pages.
For the mobile-testing sites, as well as OptumServe stationary locations in the Valley, all residents can sign up through www.lhi.care/covidtesting, and insurance is not required and symptoms do not need to be present to be tested. Flores said walk-ins are welcome at the Calexico sites.
Julio Morales contributed reporting to this story.