Iyou Southern California’s imperialist counties, the chuff chuff with spinning helicopter blades has become a familiar noise.
It is the sound of patients with coronavirus that is lifted – 15 to 17 a day on average. This remote region along the US-Mexico border lies under cover of Covid-19 and hospitals extend to the brink.
Imperial County, 1
In the last 14 days, the county’s infection rate was more than 588 per 100,000 people – the highest in the state. As of Friday, the county had registered 7,759 coronavirus cases and 132 fatalities.
Adolphe Edward, CEO of El Centro Regional Medical Center, one of only two hospitals in the county, is reminded of medical operations he has overseen in Turkey, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. More than 500 patients have already been transported from the county to other medical facilities, and cases will still be coming.
– People ask: ‘What happens? Is there a war? Said Edward. “Yes, there is. This is a war against Covid.”
‘If there was a poster of a place where Covid thrives, it’s like this’
Imperial County, a rural stretch of California’s long southeast, faces a unique set of challenges, including high poverty levels, air pollution and a transient labor force for farmers.
But in many ways it is also a microcosm of the pandemic’s customs on communities of color across the state and nation.
Latinos in California are already disproportionately affected by the virus, which accounts for 39% of the population but 55% of coronavirus cases and 42% of deaths. But near the border, the trends are even more pronounced. Latinos in Imperial County make up 85% of the population and one astonishing 95% of deaths.
Coronavirus has not only infected a disproportionately high number of inhabitants, Imperial counties are also the poorest in the state. In 2018, 30% of their children lived in poverty and rose above the state and national averages. It comes most recently on a ranking of the county’s health indicators, which include frequencies of obesity, access to health care and environmental pollution.
For several years, children in Imperial counties have been suffering from alarmingly high levels of asthma in children, a factor that researchers believe may be linked to pollution and harmful, dust-blown particles released by an evaporating Salton Sea.
Luis Olmedo, executive director of the Civico del Valle Committee, a nonprofit that has monitored air quality and pushed the state to address it, said that together, these factors make the county a petri dish for disease.
“We are in the middle of a pandemic, but we have been dealing with epidemics of cancer, asthma and diabetes for a long time. If there was a poster of a place where Covid thrives, this is it, “Olmedo said.
Doctors treating patients in Imperial counties say they are not surprised to see coronaviruses disproportionately affect a society that manages underlying risk factors for poverty and chronic illness.
“We see so many patients with diabetes, asthma, cancer and obesity. This type of comorbidity jeopardizes health, and when you encounter Covid, this virus that wants to take you down, it becomes much harder to fight, “Edward said.
The doctor said the medical center saw its first case in early March, and in the first week of April the cases began to soar. Since May, they have seen a steady flow of 50 to 60 patients with Covid-19 per day. Medical personnel have witnessed at least 26 patients deteriorate rapidly and die within 10 to 15 minutes, Edward said. Patients in need of higher levels of care have been transported as far away as San Francisco, 600 miles north.
Equipment and PPE Deficiencies are also a major problem, Edward said. El Centro’s medical center has requested another 10 ventilators from the state to meet demand. “Every county sticks to every asset they have if they get a nail,” he said.
What causes the outbreak?
Many in Imperial counties have theories of what lies behind the deadly flood. Edward believes residents can be infected when they visit nearby Arizona or San Diego, where bars and businesses have reopened.
Blanca Morales, CEO of Calexico Wellness Center, a small community clinic, said the county’s proximity to Mexicali – a metropolitan area of more than a million on the Mexican side of the border that has been overwhelmed by its own war against Covid – also likely plays a role.
“We see many patients with family in Mexicali,” she said. “They come here and they visit the family, many of them live in multi-generational homes and then we see more cases.”
While public health officials have not tied case numbers to outbreaks in specific locations, Luis Flores, a Calexico resident and activist with the Imperial Valley Equity and Justice Coalition, said many infections had happened among farmers who legally cross the border every day to work in the fields.
“The people who cross every day, they are our important workers, but there are a great number of risks. These are people who wait in line to cross the border, then board a crowded bus without PPE and go to the field for an hour, “Flores said.
Flores said he and his organization had urged county officials to enforce employer safety guidelines.
“We hear stories of bus drivers and field leaders dying. There is an element of exploitation in this labor market that also expresses itself in unsafe working conditions, “Flores said.
Imperial County’s Department of Public Health confirmed that the county has seen cases of people working in retail settings, including Walmart, as well as among agricultural workers and persons not currently employed, such as pensioners, disabled residents and children.
“Switch back” when it opens again
The crisis in Imperial County has highlighted the challenges of opening California again, especially in a hard-hit region where people are desperate to return to work.
In late June, as the county was poised to reopen more businesses, California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, ordered Imperial counties to “switch back” their plans amid growing cases, a move supported by Flores and the Equity and Justice Coalition.
County’s plans that enabled retail trade and religious services indoors also went back after the governor threatened to “intervene” if the county failed to follow guidance.
Traders, in all cases, pushed back, with the Imperial Valley Business Recovery Task Force calling Newsom’s announcement “a devastating turn of events for our companies that have worked hard in recent months to implement appropriate safety measures for a safe work environment”.
Luis Plancarte, chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, said the desire to open was particularly strong from employees who were unemployed due to lockdowns.
“The pressure came from dishwashers, servers, busboys in the restaurant industry. From retail and hospitality workers. From people who were unemployed and who already used their $ 1,200 stimulus checks and said “we run out of money and we have to do something,” Plancarte said.
The unemployment rate in the county is currently almost 30%, he added.
Meanwhile, the ACLU in San Diego and the Emperor County have been pushing county leaders to collect and publish additional information on those who have been infected – data on gender, primary language, health insurance coverage and whether they are “essential workers” – with the hope of gathering knowledge that can help the county fight back.
“If we are to be serious about dealing with this pandemic, we need to have as much information as possible,” said David Trujillo, San Diego’s attorney general and Imperial Counties ACLU.
“We want to make sure that we meet the needs of the most vulnerable residents. If we do, we will meet the needs of everyone. “