Imperial County, CA – Where once the COVID-19 infection rate was six times that of California as a whole, overwhelming the two major hospitals – has turned infection rates around, through a combination of vaccine mandates and community outreach.
But skepticism remains high among parents and other residents, as do frustrations over the fact that the county and many municipalities imposed mask and vaccine mandates.
Lots of misinformation has continued to circulate on social media and through word of mouth, prompting some residents, particularly as Omicron infections spiked early in 2022, to ask that it be declared a public health crisis.
Some 76.5% of children aged 5-11 years have gotten vaccinated, according to the Imperial County Dept. of Public Health, but some 30.6% in that age group are only partially vaccinated. And only 12.3% have received boosters.
“COVID-19 vaccines are effective at protecting people – especially those who are boosted – from getting seriously ill, being hospitalized, and even dying,” says Dr. Ameen Alshareef, MD Physician in Chief for Valley Pediatric Health in El Centro, California.
“As with other diseases, you are protected best from COVID-19 when you stay up to date with the recommended vaccines. Additionally, you are contributing to the number of people in the community who are protected from getting COVID-19 (because you’ve been vaccinated).”
Valley resident Cynthia Renteria has always had concerns about getting vaccinated – was the vaccine safe? What were the side effects? In the end, she decided to take the vaccine because it was required for city workers. Her husband works for a local municipality as a city employee.
“My problem with vaccines is that they forced you to do it – otherwise you couldn’t enter a store to shop or keep your job,” Renteria said. “I vaccinated my kids since I didn’t want to risk them not being allowed to attend school and interrupt their education.”
According to Dr. Alshareef, the most common question parents ask him is “Since COVID vaccine was developed so quickly, how do you know it’s safe?”
“Although COVID-19 vaccines were developed quickly, research and development on vaccines like these have been underway for decades. All vaccine development steps were taken to ensure COVID -19 vaccine safety and effectiveness, including clinical trials, authorization or approvals, and Tracking Safety Using Vaccine Monitoring Systems,” Alshareef noted.
Another common question he hears from parents is “Will my child be sick with COVID from the vaccine?”
“No. COVID vaccines that are currently available do not use the live virus that causes COVID-19,” Alshareef says he stresses.
He added that a person can get a COVID -19 vaccine and a flu vaccine at the same time if they are eligible and the timing coincides.
Misinformation about the virus continues to be the biggest enemy facing public health workers. As Omicron infections began to spike early in 2022, leading to some 2,663 active cases and 810 deaths, Imperial County Public Health Director Jeanette Angulo read a proposed resolution to the County Board of Supervisors asking that they declare misinformation as a public health crisis. “Misinformation can affect the health of our children, and our neighbors, and we need to protect our community,” she said.
Board Chair Jesus Eduardo Escobar asked that the resolution be placed on the agenda. But when no one seconded Escobar’s approval, the action died.
The County Executive Office was asked to submit a formal report on how the county was complying with a directive from the Office of the Surgeon General about misinformation.
In his report, Interim County Executive Officer Ben Salorio blamed the rapid evolution of information and constant changes in public health recommendations based on new evidence, for confusing the public. Without clear and contextual information from trusted sources, the community may have trouble determining what is true and what sources are trustworthy, Salorio stated.
“Additionally, many have been exposed to health misinformation, which has not only led to greater confusion, but to harassment and threats to public health workers, health professionals and others that deliver and communicate public health measures,” he added.
As the motion for this resolution failed, it was never revisited by the County Board of Supervisors.
Despite this, vaccination data shows Imperial County has 94% of its population fully vaccinated. This shows that residents decided to protect themselves and their families despite the efforts of a small vocal minority that pressured local elected officials to ease masking requirements and state mandates.
The people of the Imperial Valley trusted science and got vaccinated and thanks to that the community was able to restore its normalcy and get back to school, work, and have community events once again. Imperial County showed the world that Covid vaccine misinformation was not strong enough to stop the people’s desire to defeat the pandemic.