Kern County public health officials and medical providers have voiced concern about the increase of COVID-19 cases and low vaccination rates within many areas of the county just as variants of the virus emerge here.
The Kern County Public Health Services Department reported three cases of the delta variant Friday, raising the total number of such cases detected here to six. Medical officials said the variant has already rooted itself in this community and can reignite mass contagion among unvaccinated groups.
The region has also seen one gamma case, three beta cases and 55 alpha cases, Public Health figures available Friday show.
Overall cases in Kern County increased 39.9 percent in the latest seven-day rolling period compared to the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“L.A. County cases have gone up by over 500 percent,” said Dr. Olga Meave, the chief medical officer for Clinica Sierra Vista, which provides medical care to about 200,000 people in Kern and Fresno counties. “We are just a few miles away, so it’s a matter of time, unfortunately.”
Coronavirus cases follow a trend, said Dr. Grace Tidwell of Omni Family Health, which provides care in four counties.
“COVID first started in larger cities and then spread to smaller areas,” Tidwell added. “We saw the same thing with different variants.”
The newly arrived strain is severely transmissible, said Brynn Carrigan, the director of Kern County Public Health Services. Medical studies show the alpha virus is 43 percent to 90 percent more transmissible than the original coronavirus. The delta variant is 35 percent to 60 percent more transmissible than the alpha variant, Carrigan added.
“The variants are here and they’re going to continue to mutate,” Carrigan said. “The faster we can get vaccinated, the faster that we can stop the disease in its tracks and stop it from mutating further.”
Since Kern’s mass vaccination clinics shuttered in June, 40.5 percent of the population has been at least partially vaccinated, according to a Los Angeles Times database. The rise of cases concerns many medical officials as vaccinations within Kern County have steadily decreased and vaccination disparities remain stark.
According to the California Department of Public Health, 71 percent of residents within the ZIP code 93311, in southwest Bakersfield, have been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday. In contrast, 41 percent of residents within the ZIP code 93308, in north Bakersfield, are fully vaccinated.
Mistrust, misinformation and lack of access to medical infrastructure prevent many communities from accessing vaccines needed to stem COVID-19’s detrimental effects, said Xenia King, the president of nonprofit Mothers Against Gang Violence.
“(African Americans) don’t know if they have been helped,” King said. “Or, if it’s a conspiracy to kill off African Americans and people of color.”
Once King became vaccinated, members within her circle decided to get vaccinated.
“They trust me — they know I won’t lead them wrong,” King said. “I wish I would’ve took that shot before their face. They could’ve seen me take that shot and that I didn’t die from it.”
Nick Hill III, the president of the Kern County Black Chamber of Commerce, said a lack of funding prevents the creation of factual campaigns that can inform African Americans and ease worries.
“We’re in another situation where (the delta variant) is going to hit the African American community a lot harder than it’s going to hit any other ethnic group,” Hill said. “We need mass media, we need boots on the ground, we need town halls.”
The Black Chamber of Commerce has partnered with groups such as the Kern County Latino COVID-19 Task Force to urge individuals to get vaccinated.
“We can’t stay complacent,” said Jay Tamsi, the president and CEO of the Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and co-founder of the Latino task force. “We can’t stay stagnant. We have seen the decrease (in vaccines). But, I think that we’re going to see an increase as time progresses.”
Groups such as the Kern County Latino COVID-19 Task Force created a hotline for people to call in and host pop-up vaccination sites in underserved areas, Tamsi said.
Many individuals within those areas do not have access to transportation, and don’t have information about vaccinations because they have no Wi-Fi, said Bianca Torres, a member of the task force.
“We’re just trying to do as much as we can to get the word out there,” Torres said. “Sometimes it’s easier to hear it from a family member or children. They can explain (it) to their parents.”
The task force also offers free tacos and snow cones at some sites, which motivates many people to come for the free food but then also get vaccinated, Torres added.
“I think that has helped a lot for our vaccination sites,” Torres said.
In order to target populations without access to the internet, the Latino COVID-19 Task Force also sends canvassers in residential areas to combat misinformation.
The Kern County Public Health Services Department said it also sends employees, armed with myth versus fact information packets, to dispel misinformation. Furthermore, Public Health created a reverse 911 system to call patients about upcoming clinics, Carrigan said.
Vaccinations must increase before fall arrives, and children head back to school, said Meave, the chief medical officer for Clinca Sierra Vista.
“I’m looking forward to seeing an increase in demand and vaccines and hopefully we see an increase in the number of adolescents and pediatric patients getting vaccinated,” Meave added.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article misspelled Dr. Grace Tidwell's name.