Covid-19 patient in Los Angeles hospital

A Covid-19 patient in the ICU at Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital (MLKCH) on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 in the Willowbrook neighborhood of southern Los Angeles County, CA. (Photo: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

How Many More Seniors Will Die of Covid-19 in Los Angeles County?

This is the place for hopes and dreams, but we are failing some of our most vulnerable neighbors.

One million Americans, over 90,000 people in California, and over thirty thousand Los Angeles County residents have died of Covid-19. The most vulnerable groups are seniors and people with disabilities, especially those that are homebound. The LA County Board of Supervisors should have made homebound people a priority. Instead, it failed them throughout the pandemic and continues to fail them today.

Our story begins with a phone call made in 2020. As the pandemic was getting more deadly, a tenant living at Barnard Way in Santa Monica died of Covid-19. Barnard Way is a 61-unit Section 8 complex with older, disabled, and poor residents. Shawn Casey O'Brien, who lives in the building, contacted the office of the LA County Board of Supervisors to request testing for building residents.

A young staffer spoke with Shawn and Ernie Powell (one of the authors of this piece). After two meetings the staffer indicated that the County itself could not provide the testing. The staffer suggested that the residents go to a local testing location just few miles away. For many residents, who had limited mobility or simply did not want to risk exposure to Covid-19, this was not remotely helpful advice.

We knew that Barnard Way residents were far from the only LA County residents facing a lack of response from the County. Hence, we organized and formed COMIT, the "Coalition for Mobile In-Home Testing and Vaccinations." COMIT activists in each of the five supervisorial districts lobbied the County to support homebound residents.

Homebound people stay at home, typically for medical reasons. They need extra help with shopping and basic daily needs. A homebound person needs the help of another person or medical equipment such as crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair to get them around. The Board of Supervisors estimates that as many as 275,000 people in our county are homebound.

As reported in Becker's Hospital Review in August of 2021, the percentage of homebound adults increased nationally from 5 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in 2020. Latino adults were most likely to be homebound in 2020 at 34 percent compared to African American adults at 22.6 percent and white adults at 10.1 percent.

In March 2021, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution which created a vaccination program that served "the often forgotten homebound." The resolution asked the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to present a plan within 21 days.

The plan was approved unanimously. The COMIT team, along with our allies at Social Security Works California, were optimistic that the County would follow its own plan to vaccinate homebound residents quickly and efficiently. After all, Los Angeles County is the biggest county in the nation with nearly two million residents over the age of 60. The County has a budget of $1.3 billion, with the capacity to bring in more if needed.

This is Los Angeles, the place for hopes and dreams. Our Board of Supervisors is a liberal governmental body that cares for the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and people from across the world. Especially given our large communities of color and their health disparities, we trusted that the County would be a national leader in homebound vaccinations.

Unfortunately, our optimism was short lived. For a while, it was difficult to even receive data on how many homebound vaccinations took place. In one two-month period, four different counts were reported. For a while, the County said they could not keep count because they had outsourced vaccinations to other groups.

Finally, on January 25th, 2022, the leader of the Department of Health reported to the County that their program had only administered 4,718 vaccinations to homebound residents. This fell massively short of the County's March 2021 mandate to vaccinate 275,000 homebound residents. COMIT, Social Security Works California, and the public expected far more from our elected leaders.

So, we re-grouped and moved into full advocacy mode. Our mission was, and remains, to push the County to do what it promised to do. We have four simple "asks" for the County of Los Angeles. They are:

1) Issue a report to the public every two weeks with the number of vaccinations given through the homebound program.

2) Promote the program through television appearances, op-eds, or announcements in the Los Angeles Times and other outlets small and large.

3) Inform each elected official in the county of the program so that they can promote it to their constituents.

4) Reveal the sources of funding for the program, along with dollars spent.

To date, we have not had one clear answer to our asks. Instead, we're constantly told "we will get back to you" or "not my department." Every member of the board voted for this program--Supervisors Hilda Solis, Holly Mitchell, Sheila Kuehl, Janice Hahn, and Kathryn Barger. But getting a meeting with any of them to discuss the program is virtually impossible. The same is true for Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Director of Public Health.

According to a government agency in Sacramento, the funding for the County's homebound vaccination program is from the American Rescue Plan. California received a total of $22 billion from the ARP, with as much as $1.9 billion going to L.A. County. We are confident that the dollars are there for a robust homebound vaccination program.

Yet that isn't what is happening. As just one example, the County has told us that they plan to use channel 35 to promote the program. But that channel is known mainly by county and city employees. The County needs to flood channels 2, 4, and 7 with advertisements urging people who are homebound to make a simple phone call to 1-833-540-0473 to receive their vaccinations.

Homebound seniors and people with disabilities can't wait any longer for life-saving vaccines. It's time for the Board of Supervisors and the Department of Public Health to keep their promise.

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