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Latino health group blasts Sonoma County health officials for ignoring equity recommendations

Members of an advisory group formed last spring to help county health officials grapple with the pandemic’s dramatic effects on Latinos this week issued a strong rebuke, asserting many of their recommendations have been ignored and they are merely being used as a token panel in the county’s equity campaign.

The Latinx Health Work Group, convened by the county last May after it became clear Latino residents were being disproportionately infected by the coronavirus, presented a scathing letter Tuesday to Sonoma County supervisors. The group said its members have been disrespected and “lied to,” and listed recommendations members claim have been continually disregarded by county health officials.

Ironically, the public unveiling of the group’s simmering frustration comes at a crucial time for the county as it tries accelerating virus immunizations in Latino communities.

Responding to the letter, county health officials and elected leaders conceded much more needs to be done to address ongoing pandemic inequities in disadvantaged neighborhoods, such as the need for a more equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations there. Officials insisted the Latinx group is key partner in the local pandemic response and that they are committed to resolving the concerns raised by the organization.

Ana Lugo, a local diversity and equity consultant who has been with the work group since it was established last spring, said members have been disrespected, ignored and that “no real partnership” exists between the group and county health officials.

“All that makes for a very unfortunate situation that is at the very least … tokenism and on the heavier side a plain disregard for an entire community that makes up almost 30% of Sonoma County,” Lugo said.

In its letter, the 13-member group acknowledged the county has in recent weeks made some “headway” addressing COVID-19 vaccination disparities. But group members said the local Latino and indigenous-language communities continue to be disproportionately harmed by the pandemic disease and the unequal distribution of vaccine doses.

Gabriela Orantes, another work group member, said the lack of cultural sensitivity in the county’s “disaster response spaces” has been a continual problem. This includes the absence of interpreters or information in different languages, she said.

Orantes, who specializes in equitable recovery from natural disasters at the nonprofit North Bay Organizing Project, said greater efforts need to be made to bridge the income, technology and language barriers that are leaving many poor, vulnerable residents out of local vaccination opportunities.

“We know where the vaccine hesitancy is, or where the challenges are for community members who don’t have access or don’t know how to access the vaccine sign-ups online,” she said. “Bringing vaccination sites to affected communities is the right approach.”

According to the latest county public health data, Latino residents comprise 19% of those who are at least partially vaccinated, though the ethnic group comprises 27% of the local population.

Meanwhile, white residents, which comprise 63% of the local population, are now 74% of those who have received at least one of the two required shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Overall, Latinos in Sonoma County account for 64% of all those infected by the coronavirus since the pandemic began in March 2020. In contrast, white residents make up only 28% of those infected.

Dr. Jenny Fish, also a member of the Latinx work group, pointed to the county’s vaccine rollout that began in late December as an example of the county’s slow response to equity issues. She said local health officials officials knew throughout the pandemic that Latino and indigenous communities, specifically those living in the 95407 Zip code in southwest Santa Rosa, were among the most infected.

“We have known that for a year and the first vaccination sites were in Rohnert Park and the (Sonoma County) fairgrounds,” Fish said. “It took us four months of fighting and recommending for them to finally put a (standing) vaccination site in Roseland.”

Supervisor James Gore called the letter a “wake-up call.” Health Equity, he said, “needs to not just be this underlying buzzword, but it needs to be the priority.”

In its letter dated Monday, the Latinx work group highlighted a half dozen recommendations they say have been ignored. These include the need to standardize intake forms at vaccination sites, and to ensure that they do not require Social Security or government-issued identification.

Requests for such information raise fears of deportation among the county’s undocumented residents, the group said. Other requests include: more translators at vaccination sites, including the county fairgrounds; more pop-up vaccination sites in communities hardest hit by the pandemic; and greater outreach to indigenous communities.

The group also called for more direct meetings with each county supervisor and an evaluation and assessment of the county’s health equity efforts over the past year.

County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase also acknowledged that more needs to be done to address vaccine equity and the disproportionate effect the virus is having on disadvantaged communities. She said she’s committed to resolving differences between county public health staff members and the Latinx work group.

“We want to work collaboratively with the group moving forward, ensuring that we’re addressing all the (health equity) gaps,” Mase said, noting “we are totally open” to taking recommendations from work group members.

Lynda Hopkins, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, said the letter from the Latinx work group “broke my heart.“ She said she strongly supports the group and agrees with many of the recommendations members have made, including the need for more pop-up vaccination events in targeted neighborhoods.

“Ultimately, the buck stops here,” Hopkins said, of the group’s dissatisfaction with county officials. “If this isn’t working, we need to dive into this and figure out what part of the system is not functioning that has led to the outcomes described in the letter.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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