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County unveils details regarding first COVID-19 vaccines in Kern, local outreach

The Kern County Public Health Services Department held a wide-ranging news conference Thursday to discuss the status of coronavirus. County officials discussed the impending arrival of vaccine to health care workers in the county, the county's intensive care unit capacity and outreach to underserved communities.

The news conference was held amid reports that cases, case rates and positivity rates are continuing to surge locally. At the state level came news that California is breaking records for its daily death rates set in July — 220 people died on Wednesday, which is one more than July 31.

Brynn Carrigan, assistant director of Kern County Public Health Services, said cases are increasing rapidly in institutionalized settings locally. There were 206 new cases among inmates in the county's five state prisons on Wednesday alone.

This week there are 42 new cases among staff within 12 skilled health care facilities, and 56 new cases among residents in seven skilled health care facilities. Height Street Skilled Care had 23 new cases among residents on Wednesday, according to county health department spokeswoman Michelle Corson.

"However, these congregate settings are frankly not the only contributor to the increasing cases we're seeing here locally," said Carrigan. "These steep increases in cases that we have been experiencing require all of us to pause and make sure we as individuals are being as responsible as possible to help slow the spread of this disease and to decrease the burden on our health care system."

Carrigan called on community members to continue wearing masks outside of their home, avoid gatherings and practice physical distancing with people outside of their households.

THE FIRST ROUND OF VACCINES

The arrival of the first coronavirus vaccines in Kern County is expected soon, possibly as early as this weekend, Carrigan said. The FDA must first authorize the use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. On Thursday, a U.S. government advisory panel endorsed the use of the vaccine, which is a major step in that direction. Approval of a vaccine from Moderna is also on the horizon.

The county has submitted a draft of its vaccination plan to the state, but that has not yet been made public.

"Once we receive feedback from the state on our plan, we will obtain stakeholder input to finalize that plan," Carrigan said.

Kern County is slated to receive 5,850 doses of the Pfizer vaccine as part of the state's first shipment of 327,000. Under state and CDC guidelines, these vaccines are intended for high-risk health care workers. Carrigan said that as additional doses are made available, the county will work through CDC guidelines to prioritize the way they allocate the vaccines. 

Carrigan said local hospitals will likely serve as distribution sites for health care workers to be vaccinated, even those not employed by the hospitals. She said there will likely not be enough to vaccinate all hospital health care workers.

Kern Medical CEO Russell Judd said his facility is preparing to receive the vaccine. He said that once the vaccine is distributed to health care workers, Kern Medical and other facilities are united in doing what is necessary to help the community vaccinate other prioritized groups and then the general population.

Carrigan said the county will rely on the same methods of outreach that it has throughout the pandemic to let the community know about the vaccine. The county is currently working on creating a website dedicated to COVID-19 vaccine information. The county will also reach out to the Kern County Latino COVID-19 Task Force, faith-based leaders, major employers and other community leaders to educate the public about the vaccine.

Judd made his case for everyone in the community to get a vaccine once they're able.

"The vaccine has been proven to be effective. The science behind it is sound. We encourage all to take the vaccine and to trust it," Judd said. "Immunity is what stops the spread of this disease. We will get back to normal as we embrace the vaccine and allow it to do what it needs to do and that is keeping each other safe."

COMMUNITY OUTREACH

The county provided an update about how it has been conducting outreach to the communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Since October, the state has required counties to do more to prevent and mitigate the spread of coronavirus in communities that rank in the bottom quartile of The California Healthy Places Index. In Kern County, there are 35 census tracts in this quartile.

One of the most recent efforts is an outreach team. There are two teams of 10 people who have gone door-to-door to canvass these communities, Carrigan said. They provide health information about COVID-19, and let residents know about testing. The teams distribute masks and hand sanitizer as well as brochures about assistance and isolation programs.

"A majority of the individuals our canvassers speak with are appreciative of the information we are providing them," Carrigan said. "Our canvassers are also gaining a better understanding of potential barriers to testing, which we are addressing with our testing sites."

So far these canvassers have reached residents at 1,500 residences in nine out of the 35 tracts. On Thursday, they were in Lamont.

This on-the-ground approach is a supplement to other ongoing outreach efforts to let residents know general information about COVID-19 and the county's free mobile testing operation.

The reverse 911 system ReadyKern has reached 67,323 residents by phone, text or email to let them know about free testing. The county has also mailed general information about COVID-19, testing information and programs like Housing for the Harvest to 56,000 residents. Since the county purchased 12,000 gift cards to encourage testing in targeted communities on Nov. 30, 5,208 gift cards have been distributed.