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Fight against COVID-19 hits wall of defiance, suspicion in rural California

Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Last month, Wickenheiser was so alarmed by public indifference that he penned a letter comparing the situation to the kind of emergency that Northern Californians are used to: wildfires.

“Availability of an effective and safe vaccine is hope on the horizon, like a caravan of CalFire trucks,” the letter said. “But we will need to equip ourselves with all these tools until we have manageable spot fires. Like a fire hose, a vaccine has minimal impact during a firestorm, but is effective at putting out a smoldering fire.”

The letter was issued by the Rural Association of Northern California Health Officers, a coalition of 11 county health officers, who said they were “gravely concerned” that hospitals could be easily overwhelmed.

Wickenheiser — an amiable, bespectacled 66-year-old who has been the Tehama County health officer since 1985 — actually retired in 2017 and hopes to eventually spend his days on the tea farm he runs with his son. But as with many rural public health jobs, which pay less and require living and working in small towns, it has taken years to fill the position.

Wickenheiser, whose work badge dubs him “Extra Help,” offered to assist until a replacement arrived. The commitment was minimal. Until the pandemic.

There have been 10 months of seven-day workweeks and the learn-as-you-go logistical nightmare of securing COVID-19 tests when they were in short supply and, now, setting up vaccine clinics.

 

When it’s fully staffed, the county’s public health department has 41 positions. But it’s almost never fully staffed, said Minnie Sagar, the public health director. Currently, it has 27 employees.

Local health officials have faced another challenge: bearing the brunt of public anger toward health mandates and lockdowns, even though they have no authority to shut down businesses.

“We never thought public health would become so contentious,” Sagar said.

As of Sunday, Tehama County had recorded 3,971 cases and 42 deaths.

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