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NorCal counties to State: Get out of the way, give us vaccine, let us handle it

Some Northern California counties are tired of the state's top down approach and are asking the state to step aside and let the counties handle their own community.
Credit: AP
Vials for the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines are displayed on a tray at a clinic set up by the New Hampshire National Guard in the parking lot of Exeter, N.H., High School, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Exeter. The temporary facility, operating out of a field hospital tent, administers both the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

LASSEN COUNTY, Calif. — The top-down approach from the state reached a breaking point in Lassen County after local leaders cut ties with OptumServe, a state partner in testing services.

"Our initial concerns with having a California centralized testing solution have not only proven to be true but is turning out to be worse than what we had originally thought," Lassen County health officials said in a letter cutting ties with OptumServe.

Officials said cutting ties was a decision made in the best interest of county residents during the pandemic. 

Richard Egan, Lassen County administrative officer, said the testing in the county dropped from 300 to 400 people a week to, at most, 40 tests in OptumServe's first week. In the following week, they said OptumServe ignored advice from the county on a winter storm only to no-show a testing clinic without telling anyone.

 “We were unable to reach them. We had all these people that were lined up, ready to be tested who had also not been contacted by OptumServe that didn’t get tested," Egan said. "That week zero tests were conducted by OptumServe.”

After a few weeks, Egan said county staff observed some OptumServe staff violently coughing during a testing session. The county decided that, given all the factors, it wasn't a good idea to continue the relationship with OptumServe and cut ties with them.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) disagrees with the county's findings.

"The Testing Task Force prioritizes health and safety across all state-sponsored testing sites and strongly disagrees with the facts and characterization outlined in this letter," CDPH said, in part, in a statement to ABC10. "Lassen County was provided direct assistance and engagement with OptumServe to remediate initial concerns. The Testing Task Force was not given the same opportunity to address lingering concerns mentioned by Lassen County."

RELATED: 'It’s kind of a State reset' | Amid vaccine rollout changes, Stanislaus keeping 'optimistic'

Despite the issues with OptumServe, Egan said it's not limited to just them. He said the state's one-size fits all regulation is causing issues, and the experience they've had throughout the past year is giving them concern as they vaccinate their residents.

Over in Stanislaus County, officials say the state did a soft reset on the county’s vaccine rollout. The county received some new resources, but many of them didn't work as expected. Their Blue Shield plan is delayed indefinitely, they got less vaccine doses for their county-run mass clinics, and they were surprised to learn their new OptumServe site was only for food and agriculture workers via state press release. 

“While of course we’re always optimistic, that it will be better," said Sheriff Jeff Dirkse, Emergency Services Director for Stanislaus County. "I’ll tell you, from where we sit, it’s not starting off better.”

The county's mantra has been "we just need vaccine," in part due to supply issues and in part because they say that can handle the rest. Dirkse said Stanislaus County has a system in place, and they just need the federal government to send supplies to the state and for the state to send supplies to the counties. 

“We are collectively overthinking how to do this,” Dirkse said.

Egan is inclined to agree and said that the state has a habit of taking a system that isn't broken and trying to fix it. He thinks it'd be better if the state just took a step back and let the counties take care of their own people.

“We want to work with the state, because we need the state’s resources to accomplish our goals, but, if they will, frankly, get out of the way, give us the vaccine, and let us get it out, we can do a better job for everybody," Egan said.

RELATED: ‘That’s not right’ | Stanislaus, San Joaquin say they're getting short end of vaccine allocation

Similar frustration has been shared in San Joaquin County after officials invested in research and in a vaccine interest form only to have the state tell them everyone will eventually have to be registered using MyTurn, the state's vaccine appointment app. It's part of the requirement as they transition to the Blue Shield Third Party Administrator.

“It is upsetting that after all the work our County has done to create a strong local infrastructure, the State is once again making changes to the process by forcing us to use Blue Shield, losing our local control and the systems we have put in place,” said Supervisor Tom Patti, Chair of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors.  “However, we will move forward and continue to vaccinate and work with our partners to try and find a way to make this new system work while at the same time registering our concern over these massive changes.“

Stanislaus County's walk-up model for vaccine clinics could have to be phased out if the state requires the transition to MyTurn and could make their process less efficient, according to Dirkse.

“Quite frankly, I kind of look at it, as right now, state bureaucracy is getting in our way of putting vaccine into the arms of the public,” he said.

“There is no one more concerned about the equity of their community than the leaders that live in that community,” he added.

For Egan's part, he said that each county is unique and that local leadership needs to be behind the wheel, which for Lassen County is a health officer who's been in the community since the '80s.

"Leaving counties like Lassen and other rural counties out of the discussion and not allowing them to govern the way that their local leadership dictates should be done is really a mistake,” Egan said.

While Lassen County has ousted OptumServe for testing services, testing and other coronavirus resources can be found HERE

OptumServes ousting in Lassen County also comes as Stanislaus and San Joaquin utilize them as sites for vaccination and testing services.

Kamlesh Kaur, health services spokesperson for Stanislaus, said the county hasn't experienced any issues with the services so far. Tiffany Heyer, a spokesperson for San Joaquin's Office of Emergency Services, said OptumServe has been flexible, followed health orders, and has been willing to work with them.

A full statement from the California Department of Public Health on the issue between OptumServe and Lassen County is below.

The Testing Task Force strives to provide equitable testing and access to populations with limited resources, i.e. translation services, locations within close proximity to public transit, phone appointments/walk-in options for individuals without internet access, etc. Additionally, the Testing Task Force has partnered with OptumServe to remediate prior feedback from local advocates surrounding these access issues. This partnership has endorsed flexibility in testing volumes (85– 990 tests/day) as well as the models for specimen collection (pedestrian fixed site, drive-through fixed site, traveling teams, large motor coach and a mini-bus).

The Testing Task Force prioritizes health and safety across all state-sponsored testing sites and strongly disagrees with the facts and characterization outlined in this letter. Lassen County was provided direct assistance and engagement with OptumServe to remediate initial concerns. The Testing Task Force was not given the same opportunity to address lingering concerns mentioned by Lassen County.

Additional information regarding items outlined in Lassen County’s letter:

  • OptumServe follows all CDC guidelines and has developed infection prevention and control policy guides (see attached) to ensure safety of the onsite workforce.
  • OptumServe sends a report to the county daily with the schedule of appointments for each day.
  • The OptumServe site makes 165 appointments available to the community and accepts walk-ins.
  • It is OptumServe’s requirement for the courier transport sheet to be completed, including the number of samples to be transported.
  • OptumServe sends negative results via the patient’s preferred contact method – text, phone, email. In the event a patient does not have access to these methods, or does not answer the phone after 10 attempts, a next-day delivery letter is sent.

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