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Health officials trying to boost COVID-19 vaccine rates in Northern California’s Butte County are contending with an already hard-hit populace that’s skeptical of government.
With barely half of its 227,000 people vaccinated, the county is more than 20 percentage points behind the state’s overall vaccination rate.
“The conversation about COVID has ceased,” one teenage resident said at a Dec. 7 press briefing. “There’s a climate of denial.”
The teenager, 16-year-old Maya Klein, was speaking at a Zoom news briefing sponsored by the Sierra Health Foundation, the California Department of Public Health, and Ethnic Media Services.
She was joined by officials from the Butte Department of Public Health, a local pastor, a CSU Chico professor, and a Gridley city councilman to discuss pandemic strategies, even as the region struggles to recover from devastating wildfires that are becoming an annual disaster, and other challenges to the community.
“The things that are supposed to be keeping us safe have not,” explained Lindsay Briggs, a professor in Cal State Chico’s Public Health Department, citing the near-collapse of the Oroville Dam in 2017, the following year’s Camp/Paradise fire, and this year’s Dixie Fire.
The displacements caused by those and other fires, the struggles to rebuild, and the explosion of homelessness have all contributed to a weariness, and loss of trust and hope that there are systems in place to help ordinary people in times of need.
At Inspire High School which focuses on science and the arts, Klein said, the vaccination rate is 82%. But in the community at large, “it’s difficult to have a conversation with anyone.”
The region’s historically rural image – no longer accurate, Briggs pointed out — and individualistic culture, “creates a perfect storm of people not knowing who to trust and how to protect themselves.”
Although recent hospitalizations for COVID have overwhelmingly been of unvaccinated people, “We have an unprecedented rise of anti-science attitudes,” she said.
“If you go out in Butte County, almost nobody is wearing masks.” And the county has no mandate that people do so.
The culture of Butte County’s overwhelmingly white population tends toward individualism, Briggs said. But among natives — she counts herself as one — there’s more of a communal tendency — and, in the Navajo Nation, an 86% vaccination rate, enough to attain herd immunity.
Of the county’s Asian American population, 54.7% are vaccinated, trailing only the county’s Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander people, at 63.4%. Whites are at 47.1%, Hispanic/Latinos 44.5%, African American/Blacks 40.4%, and those identifying as multiracial 27.5%, according to statistics presented by the county health department’s Victor Rodriguez.
But the county is making progress in boosting those rates, he said, despite being short-staffed.
He cited collaborations with the Stonewall Alliance, North Valley Catholic Services, “grassroots” organizations that can provide translation in Spanish or Hmong, agencies addressing employment or homelessness, such as Project Roomkey, and hospital outreach programs, too, that all help.
His department provides information on how to get vaccinated in websites in English, Spanish, and Hmong.
County infrastructural needs for more reliable broadband service add to the challenge of reaching people in rural areas, he said, but that information can also be obtained by phone, at: (833) 422-4255.
Gridley City Councilman Angel Calderon addressed the particular challenge of the county’s agricultural workforce.
“We had the highest infection rate in the county,” he said.
“These are essential workers,” he said. “We need to develop our own approach to the pandemic.”
“If they don’t work, they don’t eat,” Calderon emphasized. So, there’s a clear disincentive to being tested. Well-intentioned quarantining rules also discourage testing because housing situations can’t accommodate isolating those who test positive.
With 70% of this population undocumented, he said, there’s also an inherent wariness about interacting with government officials.
Responding to the county’s burgeoning homeless population, Pastor Kevin Thompson of the Oroville No. 1 Church of God in Christ, has hosted vaccination clinics and founded Haven of Hope on Wheels, which provides showers and laundry facilities in four custom-built 32-foot trailers.
“For a number of people who have immigrated due to the fires, getting vaccinated is not the most important thing on their minds,” he acknowledged.
But, he said, “it breaks my heart when I get a call from someone that has lost a loved one due to Covid, a preventable virus, asking if I can eulogize them.”
The biggest challenge, as he sees it, is “simply disinformation…We will continue to die if we don’t have our leaders stand up and tell us the truth.”
“I truly believe that the fear of conversation around Covid is responsible for the extreme rates that our county is experiencing,” Klein said.
In place of reasoned debate, “these divides take the shape of weekly protests at our county’s public health press meetings, vocal protests at local school board meetings, protests at our city council, and protests from our own medical workers at our hospital in regards to anti-masking and vaccinations.”
“Covid-19 is an unfathomable reality… Starting a conversation with our youth is the first step in beginning to grapple with how this affects us as a whole.”
“We’ve got to promote healthy bodies, the family units,” Calderon said. “We need to remember that if you love somebody, your children, grandchildren, you can definitely sacrifice your beliefs and do that.”