Imperial County’s status as the country’s COVID-19 hotspot has been cemented in recent weeks as the national media keys in on the increasingly grim statistics surrounding coronavirus cases in the region.
Yet demanding equal attention has been some of the internal struggles concerning the county’s efforts to wrest “local control” from the state to address what some officials say will be long-term public health, economic and social issues that outlast the virus.
County government officials and city leaders finally got their audience with the state the afternoon of June 16 to not only advocate for more resources locally and for state authorities to visit the Imperial Valley personally to witness what is happening, but to continue to advocate for what Gov. Gavin Newsom has referred to as “localism” and allow county public health and government officials to have more say in making decisions that affect Imperial County.
Supervisors Luis Plancarte and Ryan Kelley, along with Imperial County administrative staff, held a joint virtual meeting with Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency; Marko Mijic, deputy secretary of program and fiscal affairs for the California Health and Human Services Agency; Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella; and Imperial County city mayors and managers to discuss impacts on the county due to COVID-19 and clarify the county’s position on “local control.”
Opponents of this “local control” call it an economically driven decision that does not take into account the dire state of COVID in the community, while local government officials insist some of their requests have been taken out of context.
“It’s not about business, it’s about families,” District 4 Supervisor Ryan Kelley said the morning of June 16 in clarifying the county’s position for local control and its request to grant an exemption from the “variance criteria” set by the state that Imperial County simply cannot achieve with the escalating spread of the virus.
As of the morning of June 17, Imperial County was No. 1 in the state for the last two weeks with 1,473 cases of coronavirus per 100,000 residents, some three times higher than Kings County, which was in a distant second.
This also comes as Imperial County’s seven-day average of those testing positive for the virus was more than 23 percent on June 17, well above the 8-percent seven-day average Imperial must achieve to allow it to move to a higher stage of opening certain businesses and allowing other practices that are now resuming throughout much of California.
So far, 54 Imperial County residents have died, nearly 4,500 total positive cases have been recorded, there were 986 active cases, and just over 21,000 people have been tested in the Valley, as of June 17. There were 19 COVID patients in the intensive-care units of both hospitals, with two ICU spaces left, and 79 total hospitalized COVID patients, again as of June 17.
Kelley, during his board member comments at the weekly Board of Supervisors meeting June 16, attempted to explain and expand on some of his comments from June 3, when he first asked for the county board to request local control of the governor through a letter.
Before Kelley spoke, more than 10 Imperial County residents, many apparently aligned with the new Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition that sent out its own letter to the governor via an online petition June 5 and again June 8 refuting the county’s initial letter, flooded the phone lines during public comment to admonish the county for its call for “local control.”
Our letter to the governor was “asking for local control to exercise how we feel our conditions can be applied most effectively, and we have a very knowledgeable group of people at the Public Health Department and with the county government that can make those decisions,” Kelley said.
“Too often, Imperial County is dismissed as not having the competency or not having the expertise to be able to govern itself, and others advocate that we need to have somebody over our shoulder whenever we want to make determinations about our area,” he said.
“In this regard, the county was not advocating for a general opening, but was advocating for the ability to, as the governor mentioned, (have) ‘localism’ to be applied, and allow us to implement as we saw our community ready to implement.
“There have been changes in the past two weeks. I acknowledge the numbers are significantly different then they were two weeks ago, but they were still bad two weeks ago,” Kelley said.
He said the county was not advocating for a full re-opening of its businesses then, nor is it now, as the county would not have met the state’s variance criteria for epidemiological stability at either point.
Kelley said in requesting such local control, “we are not jeopardizing any federal or state funding.”
“We were only asking that our county be able to have the authority to, as was mentioned by our governor,” to be able to move forward on the state Roadmap to Recovery with all the necessary “safety protections and precautions in place,” Kelley said.
He said he acknowledges and understands the disagreements the callers in public comment have, and he has heard the comments from those out in the community through letters, emails, and personal conversations. He also understands his words might have been misunderstood when he said we have to learn to live with the disease, “but I put in context what was not discussed.”
Kelley spoke of all the essential workers who have been working through these viral conditions all along, undertaking city services that have remained ongoing and working at stores where residents have gone to shop for their necessities.
He said he appreciates the assistance the state has given the local government and public health and hospitals as far as personal protection supplies, testing materials, and personnel from the state and federal levels to treat the infirmed.
But he said more is needed. The situation here is that critical, and “local control” is a part of that “because I’m looking downstream,” Kelley said.
“I’m looking at the social impacts, what has happened with a closed community. We all have to take our own protections and precautions and protect ourselves and our family. But this isn’t going to go away, and we have to be able to re-open … this is not about business, this is about the social fabric of our community,” Kelley said.
He said the many of the social safety-net programs contained within March 27’s federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) are set to expire July 31.
Imperial County had high unemployment in mid-March, and that has only gotten worse. He added it will be some time before it even returns to those mid-March levels, and the county needs to be prepared for that.
Kelley said he worries about the community, about “alcoholism, domestic violence, the family structure, all the stress.”
“It weighs on me every single day,” Kelley said. He added the Valley needs to dictate its own re-opening that makes sense and “fits our needs,” not “leapfrog” the state or advance past what anyone else is doing.
The county issued a press release regarding the discussions with state officials later in the day June 17, but there was no concrete information in the release that differed from what Kelley had already said June 16.
State officials made no promises and only one line in the press release even referred to a state response to the county’s letter.
“State officials in the meeting expressed concern that the state is not in a position to move California further into Stage 2,” it was written in the release.
I.V. Equity and Justice Coalition Hears Kelley, Still Disagrees
Calexico resident Luis Flores said he was “surprised” and “frustrated” by Kelley’s lengthy response and clarification when contacted June 17.
Flores, who with about nine other like-minded friends of his, helped craft the letter making the rounds that opposes the county’s call for local control. His group’s letter/petition had around 1,800 signatures as of June 17.
Early versions of the letter were part of an online petition, but there was a June 11 version that was sent as a pointed rebuttal to the county’s June 3 letter signed by Flores’ I.V. Equity and Justice Coalition and other local social justice groups like Comite Civico Del Valle and Imperial Valley Community Health Coalition.
He called Kelley’s response “transparent,” but stopped short of saying it was disingenuous.
Flores said the early letter from the county made no reference to the spike in cases being experienced two weeks ago, and he doesn’t think Kelley adequately made reference to the spikes and surge of cases being experienced this week.
He said it was clear then that the initial county letter was about economics and he thinks that continues to be the case.
One of the reasons his group has such a problem with this idea of local control and the idea that there are public health officials in place to make the right decisions is a “lack of capacity.”
Flores does not believe there are the right people in place to make those decisions. He points to a part-time public health officer in Dr. Stephen Munday and a county Public Health Department director in Jeanette Angulo who has a master’s degree in public administration, not a “relevant public health degree.”
“I’m suspicious” of local control given local and state track records on how public health issues have been handled in the county now and in the past, Flores said.
His group’s letter was a statement of “crisis” and to reach out for more resources to help stem the disease and spread of the virus, something that his group feels is not the county’s main concern.
ECRMC Expands its ICU Capacity
During a Facebook Live update the morning of June 17, El Centro Regional Medical Center showed of its “third” intensive-care unit, which should be ready to take patients in two to three days, hospital Chief Executive Officer Adolphe Edward said.
A pair of blue and white “Alaskan shelter tents” joined lengthwise just south of the north parking lot of the hospital nearest Ross Avenue will make up a third ICU and expand the number of ICU beds at ECRMC by 10.
Edward said each tent can fit five “fairly obese and large heavyset patients” and will include all the trappings of a conventional intensive-care unit. He said the tents can accommodate more than 28 nurses and more than 14 respiratory therapists.
He said he was still working on staffing the ICU addition as of the morning of June 17 by calling staffing companies, requesting state assistance and trying to hold onto the teams of nurses and staff provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that has gone to Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District in Brawley, but are now at the El Centro hospital.
Edward said the additional 10 ICU spaces should help the hospital not have to transfer as many patients to surrounding healthcare facilities.
County Emergency Medical Services Agency Director Chris Herring earlier in the week said the county has had to transfer nearly 400 patients to hospitals outside Imperial County since March 19.
This story is featured in the Jun 18, 2020 e-Edition.