COVID Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

Public Health Director Maintains Through 15 Months of Adrenaline and Hate Mail

Santa Barbara County Health Department Director Van Do-Reynoso, Ph.D. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

Along with most of the county’s health-care workers, Van Do-Reynoso has been running on adrenaline for 15 months. She’s been bingeing on medical journals and COVID case studies while the rest of us discovered streaming services like Criterion or Crunchyroll. But at one point, Do-Reynoso stopped answering her cell phone and started parking in different places because of the violent messages she began receiving as the face of Public Health in Santa Barbara County.

Her attitude can only be described as charitable as she talked about the dread it caused her family that she received mean and cruel phone messages, and the fear they experienced from very hateful and violent emails. She said did her best to understand the people who were upset with Public Health for “pushing” vaccines, imagining they were good, kind community members in other circumstances but frustrated, anxious, and fearful when it came to COVID-19.

“About 90 percent of my encounters are positive,” Do-Reynoso added. “People are kind, and people are supportive.” Vaccinations have brought the case rate down, she said: “I’m relieved our cases are incredibly low, the number of hospitalizations is incredibly low, and the number of vaccinations is going up.” She said it’s a little bit easier to breathe, and she’s trying to catch up on her sleep.

She’s committed to reaching racial and ethnic communities whose vaccination rates remain in the 20-30 percent range. Discussing new information from Dr. Anthony Fauci that the highly contagious Delta variant jumped from 10 to 20 percent of cases in the U.S. this month, she said, “We feel that with the circulating variants, the impetus on is us to vaccinate sooner than later.”

To reach agricultural workers and those in temporary housing, Public Health’s mobile van has made 52 forays into farm fields, inoculating more than 2,700 people in full; community partners like churches and other organizations have vaccinated another 2,500. Do-Reynoso’s department visited Juneteenth celebrations to bring mobile vans and friendly teams to Lompoc and Santa Barbara, succeeding in vaccinating another 35 people. In addition, her department stays in touch with clinics around the county, including the tribal clinic in Santa Ynez, keeping the mobile clinic available for when the vaccination comfort level rises. “We are swimming in vaccine availability,” she assured.

First responders were among the first to receive the vaccine, and Do-Reynoso said vaccination rates were as high as 99 percent at the District Attorney’s Office to a minimum of 55 percent at the Sheriff’s Office and 67 percent among firefighters. The numbers were just a baseline, she explained, as vaccinations at private doctor offices and pharmacies would not be among the statistics available to Public Health. Vaccination rates were also high at nursing homes, where workers who were at first reluctant to be vaccinated now rank in the 70-80 percentile.

So far, she’s heard of only three breakthrough cases of a patient becoming infected with COVID-19 after a vaccination, Do-Reynoso said. Cases would only become known if a physician reported it, she added, though the state was compiling the information, which should be available soon.

But issues remain in explaining what self-attestation for the vaccine means and explaining that businesses are not required to do an immunization check. “Some people still believe we are complicit in the great vaccine hoax,” she described. “Those are difficult conversations to read and hear because on the flip side, we know all too well the dire impact of getting COVID-19 and suffering very poor outcomes.”

She described a new strategy she’d learned from a provider: “A patient in a younger age group might say they’re not concerned about the vaccine because they were healthy, they would be asymptomatic if they got it, and they didn’t want to deal with the side effects. And, I’ll say, yes, that is so true. You are young, you could be asymptomatic, and you might not have an adverse health outcome. But think of who you might be spreading it to. The children around us, your cousin who is immunocompromised. Is that the Russian roulette you want to play?

“When I think about the bad, bad, poor outcomes, or the deaths, and how that can be prevented with vaccine and people are reluctant, it boggles my mind.”

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