Year in Review: Health

Compiled by Camille Escovedo, with reporting by Camille Escovedo and Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine, SoCoNews, December 29, 2021

doctors office

Jack and Shirley Long speak with Dr. Kathleen Whisman as longtime patients of hers while on a tour of Sebastopol Urgent Care at its grand opening Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Photo Camille Escovedo

In 2021, west county locals spent another year trying to keep calm and carry on through the pandemic, facing a mutating coronavirus and the ongoing need for regional health care options. This past year was one of strategy and adaptation, compared to the chaos of 2020.

In early January, local health officials discussed the rollout of long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines heading to the county public health department to distribute among multi-county hospitals and other shipments going directly to pharmacies.

County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase reported Sonoma County had its highest number of confirmed COVID-19 patients hospitalized at the time, at 102, while administering over 3,000 tests a day.

She updated viewers that the county was almost through vaccinating the first eligible tier made up of health care personnel, residents and staff in long-term care facilities. The county started vaccinating the second tier of workers in federally qualified health centers, in-home support services, primary care, correctional health, behavioral health and urgent care clinics on Jan. 4.

West County Health Centers (WCHS) prepared two COVID-19 community vaccination clinics in the meantime, to open in early February at Analy High School in Sebastopol and the Guerneville Elementary School, SoCoNews covered in late January.

On Feb. 3, 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the county would be developing its vaccine rollout strategy to focus on equity. The county would work with groups close to low-income seniors, residents with underlying health conditions and the Latinx community.

Hopkins pointed to how 90% of the county’s positive COVID-19 cases were Latinx at one point, including many essential workers more at risk of contracting the virus.

Denia Candela, the county health department’s equity program manager, said the county was actively seeking bilingual, multilingual and multicultural staff, including Indigenous language speakers, to support community members at clinics. Further, the strategy would assess the distance between proposed clinics and neighborhoods and distance between testing and vaccination sites.

By mid-February, west county schools were working on COVID-19 safety plans to bring elementary students and some middle schoolers back for in-person learning. Schools teaching transitional kindergarten to sixth grade could reopen under the purple tier if state and local officials approved their plans under California’s Safe Schools for All Plan, back when the state still used color tiers.

The end of February saw WCHC switch to scheduling COVID-19 vaccinations through direct outreach rather than open self-registration to prioritize groups most at-risk.

SoCoNews covered that the state’s changing vaccine supply and allocation led WCHS to more closely manage its own supplies so they could ensure people complete their two-part vaccinations before starting new rounds of first dose vaccinations.

Meanwhile, the state took Blue Shield as its third party administrator for vaccine distribution, to use MyTurn as an appointment tool.

March marked a full year since west county lost its only urgent care clinic. Sonoma Specialty Hospital (SSH) temporarily closed its Progressive Urgent Care early in the pandemic to reduce COVID-19 exposure to its long-term patients.

In 2021, SoCoNews reported the closure violated the terms of a promissory note included in the hospital’s sale. The note stipulates the hospital must maintain an urgent care or emergency department for ten years or pay $1.2 million to the Palm Drive Health Care District (PDHCD).

The American Advanced Management Group (AAMG) bought the hospital from the district in 2019. In June 2020, a lawyer issued AAMG President Gurpreet Singh and SSH’s then-chief executive officer Matt Salas a notice of this breach on the district’s behalf.

They were given 60 days to remedy the breach or pay, but in that time, PDHCD dissolved and the county took on its debts, liabilities, tax authority, monies, records … and the ability to call in the promissory note. The county sent two more notices, receiving no response until days before the deadline at the end of August.

On Aug. 28, 2020 Salas emailed then-deputy county counsel Lauren Walker that they had just signed a lease to reopen the urgent care on an adjacent property. This turned out to be false, according to further documentation provided by former district board member Jim Horn, who has filed numerous public records act requests with the county.

Walker emailed deputy county administrator Peter Bruland and Erick Roeser, county auditor-controller-treasurer-tax collector, on Oct. 6, 2020 to say SSH called her with an update the week before. She reported that they were close to signing a lease for a new urgent care building.

California Public Records Act requests revealed Singh finally sent a lease document in March 2021 establishing the urgent care’s new location, recording his signature in late January this year. Neither Salas nor Walker were available for comment. Salas no longer worked for SSH by that time, nor did Walker in the Office of the County Counsel.

Paul Gullixson, county communications manager, said AAMG had demonstrated a good faith effort to reopen the urgent care and that the county hadn’t called for the money per the promissory note because doing so could risk the urgent care opening at all.

Others were on the move to open up access to outpatient medical attention in west county. Dr. Libby Flower and Dr. Kathleen Whisman began their efforts to open two primary cares and an urgent care clinic in April 2021. By July, they were rolling out the carpet for a lobby and U-hauling medical equipment.

Also in July, Sonoma County saw an increase in COVID-19 cases as the delta variant seeped into the community, as covered by reporter Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine.

County epidemiologist Kate Pack reported delta is 60% more transmissible than other strains. Overall, hospitalized patients tended to be unvaccinated and cases were rising among younger people, according to Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for Sonoma County Providence. Medical officials urged that people get vaccinated.

In early August, the West County Teen Clinic opened at the Gravenstein Community Health Center in Sebastopol as its full-time location after years of serving youth part-time there and in Forestville. The clinic seeks to offer teens confidential family planning, testing and treatment of STIs, emergency contraception, mental health counseling, gender expansive services like hormone replacement therapy and a safe place to hang out and do homework.

Flower and Whisman opened Sebastopol Urgent Care on Aug. 28, 2021 in a building near SSH, though unaffiliated. Flower herself was previously director of the Progressive Urgent Care before unceremoniously losing her job when the hospital shut down the clinic in March and never reopened, she said.

Finally, it did. The Progressive Urgent Care partially reopened after 20 months on Nov. 12, around the corner from the hospital on Palm Drive. The clinic opened mostly for telehealth services, however. A lead provider Dr. Pankaj Malhotra said the clinic isn’t expected to be fully operational for in-person services until January, treating patients in-person as needed.

Some services, like minor suturing and possibly sprains, wouldn’t be available until January, and the clinic was on the search for more providers at that time, Malhotra said.

Bruland responded to a SoCoNews inquiry days later to say the county was assessing whether the care offered complies with the promissory note’s terms.

In Early December, local health officials pressed those eligible to get their COVID-19 booster shot or vaccine if they haven’t already, anticipating the arrival of the omicron variant. The delta variant has become the dominant strain in Sonoma County and children ages 5 to 11 have become eligible for vaccination, reported SoCoNews.

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