When Hector Alvarado, a husband and father residing in Redwood City, fell ill with COVID-19 in early September, his initial response was to isolate himself away from his wife and children, locking himself in his children’s’ bedroom. Within days, eight of his coworkers, his wife, her parents and her sister all tested positive for the virus.
“It’s not a cold. It’s not the flu. It’s something completely different,” said Alvarado. “We take so many precautions [now] because we don’t want anyone to experience this.”
Alvarado believes he became infected on Aug. 31, when a trusted client visited his office at a construction company where masks are mandated. The client entered the building without a mask, making Alvarado the first of his co-workers to contract the virus which they all took home to their families.
Before being diagnosed Sept. 7, Alvarado’s attempt to protect his family through self isolation failed, resulting in his wife experiencing even more severe symptoms than him. A 10-day fever, stomach complications, intense migraines and dehydration eventually caused her to faint twice, sending her to the hospital for treatment.
Now that he and his family have recovered from the virus, excluding some short-term mental health challenges and insomnia experienced by his wife and boss, Alvarado said taking proper precautions to protect everyone around him has become vital.
Alvarado’s story, shared during a virtual media briefing Thursday, is one of thousands, said San Mateo County Deputy Health Officer Dr. Curtis Chan. As the county nears 13,000 infections, predominantly among communities of color, health experts and county officials gathered virtually to highlight the COVID-19 disparities experienced by underserved communities and how officials have worked to mitigate concerns.
To date, 6,505 Latino residents have tested positive for the highly infectious respiratory disease with an additional 1,276 Asian residents testing positive, accounting for well over half of all 12,878 infections in the county. Dr. Kenneth Tai, the chief medical officer at North East Medical Services who spoke during the event, noted an internal study revealed those who speak Spanish or Vietnamese are four times as likely to test positive for the virus compared to other language groups.
And while people of color are most likely to catch the virus, frequently attributed to providing essential work, Deputy County Manager Justin Mates noted early testing efforts exposed access disparities as well. With one static testing site stationed at the San Mateo County Event Center meant to serve nearly 800,000 residents, many communities faced physical barriers in efficiently getting to and from the site.
“One of the big priorities for us has been trying to lower the barriers to access for testing for all of our residents, for all corners of our residents,” said Mates, noting the county has doubled testing rates over the past two months.
The county now provides multiple testing sites including the stationary site at the event center, a rotating site which pops up in Daly City, North Fair Oaks, Half Moon Bay, San Bruno and East Palo Alto and more targeted neighborhood testing which frequently isn’t listed online.
Fears of testing positive also served as a barrier, said Mates, because many residents shared concerns for losing income, hours or their job completely. In response, the county launched an assistance program through the Mental Health Association, offering financial, food and housing support to those who test positive for the virus and are contacted through contact tracers.
Chan also implored residents to “trust contact tracers,” noting information gathered is never provided to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Addressing data privacy concerns when being tested through a state or county funded Verily Inc. site, Mates also said the company is required to notify users of how data is being used and to make data anonymous when sharing to other agencies.
“We have conversations with [Verily officials] all the time about making sure they are appropriately protecting users’ data,” said Mates. “These are concerns that we’re sensitive to. … The concerns of privacy do have to be balanced against the value that testing vendors like Verily bring to the table.”
Recognizing the distrust felt by some communities, the county has also partnered with 34 nonprofits from all over the county to inform residents of what resources are available. The same messengers have also been tapped to spread the county’s message about not gathering during the holidays, a major concern as COVID-19 cases surge across the state.
The county’s new daily case rate has doubled within a week, jumping from 4.1 new cases per 100,000 residents to over 10 with an adjusted case count of 5.7, forcing the county back into the more restrictive red tier within the state’s reopening framework. The surge has mostly been attributed to gatherings among younger community members ages 20 to 49. Health officials have said the trend is true across ethnic divides.
On Tuesday, Chief of Health Louise Rogers also said it was possible the county could be moved into the most restrictive purple tier and, if it did, new restrictions could be announced by the end of this week or the beginning of next week. Deputy Chief of Health Srija Srinivasan said on Thursday that the margin between the red and purple tier for a county the size of San Mateo is thin.
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