Ventura, CA – The State of the County presentation took place on September 17, 2020. The annual event, hosted by local Chambers of Commerce and the Ventura County Tax Payers Association and community groups, provided an inside view of the dynamic coordination of COVID-19 response. “2020, what can you say? Recovering from disasters, responding to a new disaster and preparing for future disasters has become our new normal. The pandemic impacts all communities but not many communities have had the emergencies we have faced. Our community had to answer the call yet again, and you did. We have done better than most and I think we will emerge stronger than most because of the selfless generosity and compassion of our community,” said County Executive Officer Mike Powers as he kicked off the event.
As the local government responsible for public health and social services, response to the pandemic called upon the vast network of County resources and community partners. Regular coordination calls, early on, with the 10 cities, business community, education leaders, community-based partners, homeless services partners, agricultural partners, hospitals and health systems and state and federal agencies became a powerful tool in working together to address the complexity of the health emergency and the immediate needs of the community. These connections were developed before the pandemic and became a vital part of the response efforts.
The Public Health Department and Health Care Agency were able to respond in ways people may not even know. The Public Health Lab and Communicable Diseases Teams are rare among counties and the County lab was one of the first in the State to be able to process COVID tests. Contact tracing began with the first case of a cruise passenger and continues today. These efforts have been vital to mitigating spread. The County leveraged existing agency and community partner programs to help provide critical services for seniors and farmworkers and to support homeless individuals. These programs working together helped to swiftly address the health and economic impacts of the pandemic.
The County’s positive financial position allowed for reserves to be used to quickly obtain hotels to protect the most vulnerable. Innovative programs like Whole Person Care enabled the County to rapidly identify and provide health care and mental health and wellness services to people in need. The Backpack Medicine Team worked hard prior to the pandemic to serve vulnerable community members and continued during the pandemic. The combination and the coordination of these existing programs and focusing them on COVID response allowed for the County to reach people in need quickly and effectively.
The Human Services Agency Farmworker Resource Program’s multilingual team, Agricultural Commissioner and Cultivating Health in Agriculture program coordinated Ventura County Medical Center Doctors, Logrando Bienestar a mental health and wellness program and the agricultural community to support those that continued to help provide food for our community. A Farmworker Assistance Program was also launched to provide additional support.
Communication became a key piece in the County’s response especially during a time when people needed to stay home. Key platforms and engagement efforts were launched. The engagement became an essential tool in not only providing information but engaging in two-way communication on the ever-changing orders and guidance. Listening became a big component of the communication response efforts. E-news, radio, newspaper, news conferences, videos, print distribution, virtual town halls and other outreach efforts in the community grew the following of County platforms in an unprecedented way with several million social media engagements. This mattered in a time when people needed to understand the everchanging environment. It also provided a better understanding of the County for community members who had never been connected to County services.
Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and the Office of Emergency Services (OES) were able to leverage their resources and relationships to coordinate millions of pieces of Personal Protective Equipment and safety measures for more than 400 Long Term Care Facilities to protect highly vulnerable seniors. High volume testing at 13 sites was quickly established with easy access and no cost services, many in high-density low-income areas. Leveraging EMS, OES and county-wide hospital coordination helped to establish substantial surge capacity and preparedness during a time when masks and other supplies became scarce throughout the nation.
The County took an all hands-on deck approach to coordinate all County assets including the reallocation of 450 disaster services workers to do whatever was needed for the community. When food was flying off the shelf and difficult to access the County made sure to work with partners like Food Share to increase access to needed supplies with expanded pop-up sites and later hours. The County’s Area Agency on Aging also implemented the State’s Great Plates Program providing daily meals in partnership with restaurants helping to keep restaurants going and seniors fed. County Sheriff, Fire, Probation and Social Workers also continued to provide critical services facing higher risks during the pandemic.
During the health response the impacts to our business community have been severe. The County came alongside to support businesses that were struggling with the economic impacts of closures with a Business Assistance Grant Program and helped residents who had lost employment through a Rental Assistance Program. These programs combined provided $35 million in support. A business ambassador program, a unique effort spearheaded by the County’s Resource Management Agency in partnership with the cities, was launched to help businesses navigate COVD compliance. Business Ambassadors began visiting local businesses to help businesses understand requirements.
The County was well positioned from careful financial management prior to the pandemic with reserves in the budget to address immediate needs. The County was awarded the highest long term and short-term credit ratings from Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s allowing the County to refinance existing bonds to save $34 million net present value which was especially noteworthy during the very uncertain times of the health emergency. These savings are critical to future response efforts allowing the County to continue to provide needed services and to build strength for expanding public health capacity. As COVID-19 will continue to have lingering impacts the County can sustain existing services and supportive efforts this year and into the new year because of the reserves. Having a pension reserve, for the first time ever, also helped stabilize finances. “We want to be ready for as long as it takes our community to recover from a business, health and economic stand point,” added Powers.
Access to services online instead of in line has been key in providing seamless services when many buildings have had to close. The County was named the Number 1 Digital County in the nation early this month. That investment in technology began many years ago and has helped position the County to provide telehealth, paperless systems, online access and remote working infrastructure allowing community members to receive the services they have needed in real time. Many County facilities had to close to the public to the slow the spread of COVID, yet their services were sustained through the technological network of support. The County’s two hospitals, 80 clinics and patients all benefited from telemedicine services with stories of saved limbs and lives through these virtual visits.
Prior to the pandemic Powers spoke to Cal State Channel Islands about jobs of the future with technological advancements changing the landscape of the workforce. “Now it’s even more important to be adaptive with workforce development, technology and broadband and to work with community partners to advance opportunities for our community members and businesses,” added Powers. “Advancements in technology and increased workforce training will help with the economic vitality of our region. Leveraging County agencies, schools, business organizations and technological innovation will provide exciting opportunities as businesses adapt.”
While response efforts were happening, the horrific killing of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed raised awareness of social equity and race in our government and communities. We met with community partners and held employee and community forums to have open and honest dialogue to work together and ensure all have a sense of safety, belonging, justice, equity and peace regardless of race, gender, age, gender, sexuality or other identities. The County is committed to diversity and inclusion having previously implemented the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, Mentorship Program and associated training. The County expressed its commitment to further progress for the County workforce and in the services provided to the community.
The County’s response efforts have leveraged existing programs and partnerships to best serve the community during a critical time. This response will continue as the County helps the community to recover. “Together we will overcome this challenging time stronger and more connected because our community is resilient, compassionate, adaptable, innovative and strong. We come together to help one another, and that spirit will carry us forward,” added Powers.
The full presentation can be viewed at https://stateofthecounty.ventura.org/.