Ongoing Pandemic Taking its Toll on Orange County’s Most Vulnerable

December 3, 2020 Updated: December 3, 2020

Orange County’s most at-risk residents—including those trapped in abusive relationships and others living on the streets—are becoming more vulnerable as the pandemic continues, say specialists.

“As a result of the shelter in place [order] … our agency experienced a 65 percent increase in our hotline calls, as you can well imagine now that we have families that have to hunker down,” said Veronica Stephens, lead community education specialist for the Southern California-based domestic violence shelter Laura’s House.

“They’re no longer going to work, they’re no longer going to school, and there’s just increased opportunities for violence.”

Stephens was speaking during a livestreamed meeting hosted Dec. 2 by The Illumination Foundation, a nonprofit that helps homeless adults. The virtual event was held to discuss the pandemic, mental health, and health care.

Stephens noted that there has been a disruption in counseling for people who are still in domestic abuse relationships, due to no longer meeting in-person.

“We saw a dramatic difference in our therapy or counseling services,” she said. “Rather than the clients coming in for that one-on-one therapy, they had to switch to telehealth—but then how are they going to have that conversation in that hour long session when the person causing harm is in the next room?”

Mental Health Struggles

The pandemic has also affected the mental health of people across the nation, from children and teenagers to seniors, said Orange County Health Care Agency Director and county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau.

“It has a huge effect on the emotional wellness of our community, especially for individuals living with mental illness as well as addiction,” Chau said during the event.

Calls to a local hotline for mental health support have increased dramatically since the pandemic began, he said, from people suffering from anxiety, stress, and more.

Chau also touched on how the pandemic has affected young children and teenagers.

“The effects that have been talked about [are] in terms of children who are locked up at their home, not having been able to return to school for in-person instruction, and how that would affect their relationship with their peers, as well as their development process in terms of social interaction,” he said.

It has not been an easy year for senior citizens either, he said, noting many have been isolated since late February.

“I would recommend that we create a neighborhood support team to [reach out] to individual senior resident citizens in our neighborhood, to make sure that they are not alone and to make sure that they are well taken care of,” Chau said.

“Overall, I would encourage us to come together to pay attention to the emotional wellness of our citizens. It is very important that we start that conversation now.”

Helping the Homeless

The homeless are yet another segment of the population that has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, said Boston Health Care for the Homeless president James O’Connell.

“All of the sudden [COVID showed up] … and as always, the people who are in the worst situations—those who are most vulnerable to poverty, and all the issues of racism—are the people that get hit really badly,” O’Connell said during the event.

“And so in our program, it’s been a nightmare, but in many ways a testament to how flexible people have to be, and how much they have to give of themselves to address [homelessness] that’s coming our way.”

Megan McClure, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s acting chief deputy director, discussed how Project Roomkey, a measure that’s meant to help people experiencing homelessness by providing rooms to stay in, has helped with medical sheltering for those who have COVID-19, suspect they have it, or were exposed to it.

“We currently are expanding our capacity around medical sheltering so that folks that are COVID-exposed and positive will have additional housing,” McClure said.

The Solution

Kaiser Permanente infectious disease specialist Dr. David Bronstein said help is on the way in the form of a vaccine.

“For a virus that’s very contagious, can be deadly, hard to test for, and not easily treated, the only thing that’s going to save us all is an effective and safe vaccine,” he said during the stream.

Bronstein said that for a typical disease in a non-pandemic situation, vaccines usually take more than a decade to develop, pass clinical trials, be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and enter the market. Progress on a COVID-19 vaccine is happening much faster.

“Time has been of the essence,” he said. “Not only have the phases [of clinical trials] been significantly shortened, but in many cases they occurred simultaneously.”

Follow Drew on Twitter: @DrewVanVoorhis