In the same week the first cases of an omicron subvariant were reported in California, one silver living in the Coachella Valley's fight against COVID-19 emerged: nearly 71% of the local population has been fully vaccinated, according to new data from the Desert Healthcare District.
The Coachella Valley's 12 and older population is 80.9% fully vaccinated, while the total population is 70.8% fully vaccinated, higher than Riverside County's 59.6%. The district reports that less than 40,000 Coachella Valley residents would need to get vaccinated to bring the total population rate to 80%.
Since the district's December meeting, the 12 to 17 age group saw an increase from 73% to 84% fully vaccinated; the 18 to 24 age group increased from 77% to 80%; the 25 to 44 age group increased from 68% to 70%; and the 45 to 64 age group increased from 77% to 78%. The 65 and older group has reached 91% fully vaccinated.
Here is a full breakdown of vaccination rates per Coachella Valley city, according to Riverside County Public Health data as of Monday:
Cathedral City: 9.8% partially vaccinated, 71.62% fully vaccinated
Coachella: 9.49% partially vaccinated, 62.22% fully vaccinated
Desert Hot Springs: 9.18% partially vaccinated, 63.78% fully vaccinated
Indian Wells: 12.66% partially vaccinated, 78.9% fully vaccinated
Indio: 10.25% partially vaccinated, 65.49% fully vaccinated
La Quinta: 9.53% partially vaccinated, 72.49% fully vaccinated
Palm Desert: 11.46% partially vaccinated, 77.47% fully vaccinated
Palm Springs: 11.4% partially vaccinated, 81.61% fully vaccinated
Rancho Mirage: 11.59% partially vaccinated, 84.49% fully vaccinated
The Desert Healthcare District is a local government agency whose goal is to help Coachella Valley residents receive health care resources, housing, food and other services.
But district officials recognize there's still work to do. Chief of community engagement Alejandro Espinoza said he wants to seek out more partnerships throughout the valley to offer vaccination and testing clinics and increase the impact in the community.
Among the farmworker population in the east valley, Espinoza said the district vaccinated "thousands" during the initial vaccine campaign. At two recent clinics, he saw "a little bit under 1,000 individuals get vaccinated." One site condensed from two days of clinics to just one day due to lack of registration.
"Some of the messaging that we're working on is to promote and continue to advise our community to get the booster shot," Espinoza said. "Some of the feedback that we received ... is there is pretty much vaccine burnout from the farmworkers. A lot of them do not want to get vaccinated for the booster shot."
One reason, Chief Program Officer Donna Craig suggested, was that migrant farmworkers might be getting vaccinated at other sites outside the valley, thus leading to lower turnout.
Espinoza said the district will be putting together a call list from the county and Rite Aid pharmacies to have phone banking sessions with community health workers. They will call those who were vaccinated and advise them about upcoming clinics where they can receive boosters.
Need a COVID-19 test? Here's where you can get one in the Coachella Valley
While COVID-19 cases have begun to decline locally, cases of BA.2 are on the rise in the Philippines, India, Denmark and South Africa, said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Cases have been reported in the United States, too – so far in California, New Mexico, Texas and Washington state.
It's not clear yet whether BA.2 is pushing out the original omicron variant, now referred to as BA.1, he said.
"What we don't know and still have almost no information on is what impact this will have on case counts, on hospitalizations, on deaths," Lemieux said.
It's also too early to know whether vaccinated and other existing medicines will provide ample protection against BA.2, said Jeremy Luban, a professor of molecular medicine, biochemistry and molecular pharmacology at UMass Medical School.
'COVID surge' at Desert Regional Medical Center, JFK Memorial
Health care workers at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs and JFK Memorial in Indio continue to face an influx of patients and staffing shortages, explained CEO Michele Finney.
Desert Regional has had more than 100 COVID-19-positive patients, while JFK Memorial has seen 27, as of Tuesday's report. She added that Desert Regional reached a historic high inpatient census last week, but did not share that number.
"We do consider ourselves experiencing a COVID surge," Finney said. "Both facilities have been very challenged in their census levels."
At Desert Regional, about 62% of COVID-positive patients are unvaccinated, 32% are vaccinated and 6% are fully vaccinated and boosted. The patients in the critical care unit are mostly unvaccinated, she added.
All hospital admissions are tested for COVID-19, Finney explained. About 35% to 40% of patients labeled as COVID-positive are asymptomatic and are not being treated for the virus, but instead may be in the hospital for another aliment, elective surgery or another reason.
The flu season, however, has been light compared to previous years, and 14 flu cases have been reported at Desert Regional. One individual had both the flu and COVID-19.
What has added to the challenge of a growing COVID-positive census is that the hospital length of stay has increased, Finney said. There is a shortage of post-acute providers in the community, she explained, which prevents the hospital from discharging patients to skilled nursing facilities or other sites.
To accommodate high patient numbers, Desert Regional's pediatric unit was converted into a med/surge unit, and some skilled level nursing patients who couldn't be placed in the community were housed in the acute rehab unit, Finney said. The hospital has retained a Loma Linda University Health Services pediatric hospitalist to continue to meet the needs of any youth patients.
Staffing numbers have also been difficult to maintain. Earlier this month, around 50 nurses demonstrated in front of Desert Regional to voice their frustrations over staffing shortages and what they alleged as unsafe working conditions caused by COVID-19.
Finney said staff members are working overtime and double time, and bonus shifts are being offered. About 60 traveling nurses are in-house, and there are open requisitions with a number of traveling nurse agencies.
Visitation guidelines have been modified at both hospitals, and visitors are no longer allowed in the emergency room department. One visitor is allowed on the inpatient side. There are special visiting rules for labor and delivery, pediatric, newborn intensive care units and end-of-life patients.
In order for someone to visit a hospital site, they need to test negative for COVID-19 within 48 hours or be fully vaccinated, which includes a booster shot.
In its Tuesday meeting, the board approved the Hummingbird map for its redistricting effort, which will be used to redraw district lines for the November election.
In 2018, the Desert Healthcare District took on a zoning process prompted by a growing requirement for California’s special districts and other agencies to improve diverse representation, according to a press release. A five-zone map was approved that summer, which moved the district from at-large to zone-based board member elections. Then, in November of that year, voters approved expanding the district's boundaries east of Cook Street, which doubled its coverage area. A rezoning process led to the creation of seven zones covering the valley.
The district's seven zones are expected to be redrawn this year based on 2020 U.S. Census results. Its population grew from 421,936 in 2010 to 443,239 in 2020, a 5% increase of 21,303 people, according to board documents. The current district map has a population deviation of 12.7% between the largest and smallest zones, which is above the 10% threshold.
Changes with the Hummingbird map from the current district map include:
Zones 6 and 7 follow Avenue 50
All of La Quinta and Indio south of Highway 111 move to Zone 3
Palm Desert to Portola Avenue and north Indio move to Zone 5
Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage south of Highway 111 move to Zone 1
Cathedral City north of Gerald Ford Drive moves to Zone 4
Zero population changes between Zones 1 and 4, 2 and 4, 2 and 6, and 3 and 7
Population deviation of 4.40%
Three public comment meetings were held in 2021 to discuss three proposed maps. The two other maps had minimal changes from the current one.
Tuesday's meeting was also the first with Director Karen Borja as board president and Director Evett PerezGil as vice president and secretary, who were elected in December. Director Arthur Shorr was re-elected as treasurer.
Borja, who served as vice president and secretary since January 2020, was elected to fill the top position occupied by Director Leticia De Lara for the past two years. De Lara will continue to serve as the Zone 7 director.
USA Today contributed to this report.
Ema Sasic covers health in the Coachella Valley. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ema_sasic.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Nearly 71% of Coachella Valley's total population fully vaccinated