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Imperial County Supervisor Ray Castillo (left) listens as Supervisor Jesus Escobar questions Public Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday and Public Health Director Janette Angulo over the nature of the new COVID treatments that are in development during the county board meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 9. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

Residents Question Public Health Officials Amid COVID Surges

EL CENTRO — Imperial County residents and members of the Board of Supervisors questioned Imperial County Public Health Director Janette Angulo and Public Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday about the safety and availability of new medications to treat COVID-19 amid rising positive cases and hospitalization rates. 

“(For) test positivity, we’re above the state rate, and hospitalizations, as you can see, we are starting to trend upward again,” Angulo said during her update on COVID during the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday morning, Nov. 9.

Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 2, Imperial County had 314 new COVID cases and averaged 33.4 hospitalized patients with COVID over a 14-day average, Angulo said. During that period, she added that Imperial County had 25.9 COVID cases per 100,000 people, with a 10.6 percent positivity rate over a seven-day average. Deaths were at 766 since the pandemic began.

At one point in the discussion, Angulo, addressing a question from Imperial County Supervisor Jesus Escobar, said the intensive-care departments between the hospitals in El Centro and Brawley had 14 beds filled with COVID cases, with only four total ICU beds available. But she added that ICU bed numbers can change quickly.

Not all of the news was bad, though. Some 83.3 percent of the county’s population age 12 and older are fully vaccinated, Angulo shared.

Public Health officials also spoke about new antiviral medications in development to treat COVID. “The good news that I would like to share, we have had a little bit of a conversation about the fact that there are now a couple of oral medications that are in the pipeline to treat COVID,” Dr. Munday said during the meeting. 

The two medications Munday referenced, Merck and Ridgeback’s molnupiravir and Pfizer’s paxlovid, are both oral antiviral treatments that tout a 50 percent reduction in risk of hospitalization and death. Both medications are still in trials, so neither has come before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Supervisor Escobar asked Munday a series of questions, including whether the discussed medications would work similarly to the way the flu is treated with Tamiflu and whether these drugs would be considered for FDA emergency approval and when.

Munday explained that the initial data-gathering process is labor intensive, saying that processes were not designed to assess such things as unvaccinated patient reinfection rates. In answering Escobar’s questions, he explained that, yes, the approval of these medications would be done through the emergency-use authorization process, and they will be on the docket for FDA review on Nov. 30. 

Residents grew frustrated at Munday’s response, citing concerns over the lack of studies done for these treatments, which some said could have serious side effects and the FDA was criticized for rushing through the approval process.

“I’d like to see a little bit more transparency throughout this whole situation and whether we’re doing it through emergency use or actual approved use, because this is our children you’re talking about. Simple as that,” Holtville resident Hunter Toten said.

Hunter Toten of Holtville returns to his seat after questioning Imperial County Public Health Department officials about the dangers associated with rushing the FDA approval process on Tuesday, Nov. 9. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

FDA is not the sole governing body to review trial data before vaccinations or therapeutics are administered in California, Angulo said, referring to other statements that the FDA rushed through the approval of vaccines for children ages 5 to 11. She said the state itself and a scientific safety review group has to approve anything before it is put into use. 

“There’s scientific safety review work group that started in California, and is comprised of nationally recognized organizations, public health, academic and other subject matter experts to ensure that the COVID vaccine meets safety requirements,” Angulo said. 

Discussion of the treatments was then redirected by Supervisor Ryan Kelley, who questioned Munday about what the anticipated cost of these treatments will be once they are approved and being administered.

Supervisor Ryan Kelley questions Dr. Munday over the projected costs of new COVID treatments discussed during the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 9. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

“The Merck antiviral, when it becomes available, there is a cost of production, and I’m not sure if you’re tracking it or heard, but there was a report that it’s going to be sold at 40 times the cost of manufacturing,” Kelley said. “There is a federal rule that could be enforced that would limit the profiteering off of that government-supported science breakthrough. Are you aware of this?”

Munday said he was not privy to that kind of information, saying that he is only hearing rumors like everyone else, but it is his belief that the treatment will be handled the same way the vaccine was initially, with the government purchasing the treatment directly then administrating it as needed to various jurisdictions. The response left residents and supervisors with unanswered questions.

An Olive Branch Extended

After an emotionally charged public comment on Nov. 2, where Calexico City Council member Raul Ureña accused Supervisor Ray Castillo of betraying his people by voting to remove the mask mandate and of talking poorly of Ureña’s sexuality and gender identity, Ureña returned to the county board meeting on Tuesday to clarify his statements and offer to work with the board for the betterment of the Imperial Valley’s LGBT community.

“Very importantly, I wanted to go ahead and clarify to the community that I am aware and I know that Mr. Castillo is a man of God. He’s not only a man of God, he is a person that has grown greatly on the topic of sexuality and gender and becoming a more accepting person. I recognize this,” Ureña said in public comment.

“I hope that we can move forward on the more substantive issues that affect the LGBTQ community, specifically women, suicide, forced prostitution,” he said, adding that eviction of LGBTQ youths from the foster system or from traditional homes push youths into prostitution, drug use, and to suffer from mental-health issues. 

Calexico City Council member Raul Ureña offers to work with the Imperial County Board of Supervisors for the betterment of the Imperial Valley’s LGBT community on Tuesday, Nov. 9, following ,his emotionally charged public comments on Nov. 2. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

Ureña established that details on how they could work together would be outlined in an email to the Board of Supervisors. The supervisors agreed to work with Ureña, with Chairman Michael Kelley telling Ureña, “Well said, young man.”

Although Ureña did mend some fences, the county board moved ahead with addressing its code of conduct on public comments as a direct result of the Calexico council member’s appearance at the last meeting.

The board did this by more clearly defining that code of conduct.

Moving forward, no profanity or obscenity will be allowed during public comments, according to the board. There will be no yelling or screaming, no slander or defamatory statements, no personal threats or attacks, no hateful epitaphs or demeaning language based on hate of a person’s race religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or disability.

There will be respect all people that are present or watching. And speakers will be asked to obey the direction of the chair of the board and the clerk of the board as to when and how long to speak. No loud speaking without being recognized by the chair will be allowed and there will be no other disrupting speech or action, creating a much more peaceful environment to discuss the administration of the county, according to officials.