Coronavirus testing and vaccination strategies evolve as pandemic presents different challenges

In a long-drawn battle against the coronavirus pandemic, the only constant has been change.

As delta variant cases continue to rise in the Inland Empire, especially among the unvaccinated, and hospitals begin, yet again, to feel the stress of beds filling up, county health officials are re-examining their strategies when it comes to testing and vaccinations. And each county appears to be taking a slightly different approach.

Riverside County has reduced the number mass vaccination sites, but continues to target neighborhood and communities with mobile vaccination and testing units. San Bernardino County officials said they have no plans to close any of their vaccination or testing sites for the time being. Los Angeles County health officials said they have more than 1,020 vaccine locations as well as testing sites available countywide.

This week, as of Aug. 30, Riverside County continued to see a rise in coronavirus hospitalizations, though at a slower rate than in recent weeks. San Bernardino County health officials said this week that while hospitals have seen an increase in patients being admitted with the virus, the numbers have begun to level off. However, about 90% of those who are admitted are unvaccinated, officials have said.

Los Angeles County has been seeing a similar trend after weeks of steady increases. The number of patients being treated in intensive care units, however, continued climbing, reaching 452 on Monday, Aug. 30.

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Riverside County has been adjusting its strategy to better meet current demands, said Kim Saruwatari, the county’s director of public health. She said the county has closed four out of six mass vaccination sites. The two that are open are in Riverside and Temecula, she said.

“The mass vaccination sites really helped us meet the demand of people who had cars and the technological savvy to schedule appointments,” she said. “But we realized we need to deploy mobile teams to reach those who cannot come out to these sites.”

The county has been sending smaller mobile units out so they can reach more communities, Saruwatari said. It has adopted a similar strategy for testing, which has gone up significantly in the past couple of months, she said.

“We have good coverage of communities with testing between our department, the cities, mobile units and providers,” Saruwatari added.

Saruwatari expects to pivot yet again when booster shots become more widely available. The strategy will depend on how the vaccines are rolled out, she said, and could involve reopening some mass vaccination sites.

“Earlier, we had many hospitals that conducted vaccination clinics,” she said. “Now, we don’t have that luxury because hospitals are inundated with patients.”

San Bernardino County, meanwhile, is operating 18 testing sites and conducting testing during special events, in addition to seven state testing sites and those at medical facilities and urgent care clinics, said county spokesman David Wert. The county has 13 vaccination sites and has conducted more than 530 community pop-up vaccination clinics, including those hosted at schools, he said.

San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties also offer house calls for those who cannot leave their homes to get vaccinated. Since January, San Bernardino County has administered 714 vaccines to homebound residents, Wert said. Riverside County currently does not offer house calls but has had some discussions with school districts to open mobile vaccination clinics on campuses, according to an official there.

Need to get vaccinated at home? We’ll come to you! Call the @lapublichealth Vaccine Call Center at 833-540-0473 between 8 AM and 8:30 PM, any day of the week, for assistance. pic.twitter.com/plWpmgKWH8

— Los Angeles County (@CountyofLA) August 28, 2021

In San Bernardino County, “the (vaccination clinics) are definitely making a difference as we are vaccinating hundreds of people every day,” Wert said. “Since we have not ramped down, we are not expecting a need to increase capacity once boosters are widely allowed.”

The booster shots will likely be staggered, depending on the length of time since individuals got their second shot. So, Wert said, health officials don’t expect an immediate need to open more sites.

Testing still plays an important role in fighting COVID-19, especially with the spread of the delta variant, Los Angeles County health officials said in an e-mail statement. Free testing is still available throughout the county and some locations even take walk-ins, they said.

Staff writer Javier Rojas contributed to this report.

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