Sonoma County Health department outlines new, diminished response to COVID
They were the proverbial boots on the ground during Sonoma County’s never-ending battles against COVID-19, temporary county health workers whose ranks fluctuated almost in concert with each pandemic surge over the past two years.
They’ve been celebrated as heroes, essential troops in a now historic public health campaign that no one wants or expects to go on forever.
This week, that temporary workforce of about 60 staff with the County Department of Health Services — known by many as DHS — will be reduced by a third. It’s a direct response to the evolving nature of the pandemic and just days ahead of a June 30 deadline when millions of dollars in government pandemic funding is set to run out.
County health officials said everyone knew this time was coming. For weeks, however, many temporary workers, as well as the county’s health partners, have been left in the dark about details of the department’s plans to continue its COVID-19 response and vaccinations beyond June 30.
The confusion caused by what they say has been a lack of clarity about the plans comes on the heels of a searing report from the Sonoma County Civil grand jury, which pointed to deep-rooted problems in DHS’s pandemic response.
On Thursday, during an interview with The Press Democrat, Health Services Director Tina Rivera and Public Health Division Director Gabriel Kaplan expressed sympathy for departing temporary workers and thanked them for their contributions during the pandemic.
But they insisted everyone knew the county’s emergency pandemic response would scale back at the end of June.
“Some of them were notified this week, but most of them were notified sooner than that,” Rivera said. “Many had already resigned weeks ago, and a month ago, because they knew that come June 30, the COVID response was being demobilized.”
However, some local providers who operated clinics and other COVID-19 services said they didn’t know until last week whether they would continue to be part of the county’s vaccination program after June 30.
A party tinged with uncertainty
All agree these partners have been invaluable links in the public safety chain during the pandemic. After a bumpy start, Sonoma County has achieved high rates of COVID immunization. Currently, 83% of the county’s eligible population is fully vaccinated.
With that sort of progress as the pandemic wore on, the focus turned to populations that proved stubbornly hard to reach. They included homebound residents with disabilities, the unsheltered and undocumented workers. The county referred to this as equity work, and small clinics played an oversized role in closing the gap.
One of them, Fox Home Health, which operates the vaccine clinic at Roseland Community Center, recently hosted a party for frontline health staff. At the event, county health workers shared “war stories” about the pandemic. Many expressed thanks for the help they received from Fox and other community-based organizations.
The celebration, at the Luther Burbank Art and Garden Center on Yulupa Avenue in Santa Rosa, took place a week before the county would begin notifying a number of contract workers whether they would still have jobs in July. Beneath the air of celebration and gratitude was an unmistakable undertone of uncertainty.
Some of the county staff attending the event said they did not know what the county’s post-June 30 pandemic plan was. Two temporary workers spoke to The Press Democrat anonymously for fear of retribution, since at the time they still didn’t know if they would have jobs.
“We’ve known that this has been coming for a while,” said one worker. “But the actual decision to make the change, letting people go, figuring out what this going to look like, what our capacity is going to be going forward, those things are literally being discussed now. It’s kind of stressful.”
Ed Sawicki, the county’s vaccine mission manager, was among those who expressed their thanks to Fox Home Health owner Cheryl Fox and her staff on June 17. When asked if the county had a plan, he said, “We’re finalizing it as we speak.”
Those whose jobs were potentially at risk say ongoing deliberations over the county’s future COVID-19 plan should have taken place months ago, not a week or two before funding was set to run out.
Rivera and Kaplan strongly rejected any suggestion that a post-pandemic plan was being crafted at the last minute. They said it’s been months in the making.
They shared details the county’s “COVID Demobilization Plan,” a process that hinges on a belief that COVID-19 no longer poses the threat it did a year ago, or two years ago.