Orange County Targets Asian, Pacific Islander Communities With Mobile COVID-19 Testing

October 19, 2020 Updated: October 19, 2020

A new “strike team” dedicated to increased COVID-19 testing of the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities in Orange County, California, has tested hundreds of residents during its first week.

The team is organizing mobile pop-up testing locations in ZIP codes with high positivity rates. So far, the team has tested more than 700 people.

Ellen Ahn, executive director of Korean Community Services, is leading the testing effort for the OC API Taskforce, a coalition of organizations in the county targeting the API population.

Ahn said the testing is available to all residents—API and non-API alike—but the effort has a special focus on providing information in API languages.

“COVID-19 kind of ripped open and showed the world the disproportionate impact” these kinds of diseases can have on the most vulnerable communities, she said at a virtual meeting on Oct. 16.

Asians and Pacific Islanders make up more than 20 percent of the Orange County population, according to demographic reports.

While some subgroups within the API community appear to have had a lower incidence rate of COVID-19 than the general population, others have been disproportionately affected.

“Approximately 18 percent of the Cambodian community members who’ve had COVID-19 testing tested positive, which is significantly higher than the OC testing positivity rate,” said Vattana Peong, executive director of the Cambodian Family Community Center.

Orange County’s testing positivity rate stands at 3.5 percent as of Oct. 19, according to the county’s latest data chart.

Pacific Islanders are another group that has been “devastated by the impact of COVID-19,” said Charlene Kazner, board member of the Pacific Islander Health Partnership.

“We have the highest population rate of COVID-19 cases and the highest population rate of COVID-19 deaths of all ethnic groups in California,” she said.

The Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) is now contracting with the OC API Taskforce to provide testing to these targeted communities three times a week through Dec. 31.

Orange County Supervisors Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee joined OCHCA Director Dr. Clayton Chau and others involved in the strike team on an Oct. 16 Zoom call.

“The impact of COVID-19 has been very significant on the vulnerable communities, and those communities are left to bear really the brunt of the crisis, both economically and health-wise,” Do said.

Some challenges include lack of access to health care, low income, type of occupation, transportation issues, and living conditions.

In addition to testing, the task force is providing translated information in as many languages as possible, as well as helping community members with housing, food, and other services.

After noticing that local food banks lacked Asian foods that community members were accustomed to, the local organizations affiliated with the task force scraped together to buy these items in bulk, said Ahn.

“We saw no place handing out these very, very important Asian staples, and so we all came together and said let’s do something,” she said.

“We have done now three or four distributions of rice, soy sauce, chili sauce, noodles, all of that. That came about without any funding, and it came about because of need.”

The task force has since acquired funding through OCHCA and the federal Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, as well as a $100,000 grant from the California Endowment to address health equity issues for the next two years.

An improvement in health equity is part of the requirement from California’s Blueprint for Safer Economy, which allows counties to gradually reopen their local businesses. Orange County is currently in the red tier, the second most restrictive tier in the color-coded system.

Chau said that while the CARES Act funding ends on Dec. 31, he plans to help make sure these types of services and outreach coordination continue indefinitely.

“If we don’t take this opportunity to build an infrastructure to respond to the next pandemic, we have not learned anything,” Chau said.

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