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LGBTQ experts help in South Bay COVID-19 response


LGBTQ emergency response center staff in Santa Clara County include, in back row from left, Eydie Mendoza, Edie Schaffer, Maribel Martínez; in center from left, Ricardo Romero-Morales, Sandy Stier, Rodrigo Garcia-Reyes; and in front from left, Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, Dr. George Han, and David Campos. Photo: Luis Pedro Castillo
LGBTQ emergency response center staff in Santa Clara County include, in back row from left, Eydie Mendoza, Edie Schaffer, Maribel Martínez; in center from left, Ricardo Romero-Morales, Sandy Stier, Rodrigo Garcia-Reyes; and in front from left, Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, Dr. George Han, and David Campos. Photo: Luis Pedro Castillo  

While it is now scaling back reopening plans in light of an uptick in infections, Santa Clara County has been ahead of the curve for the novel coronavirus since the pandemic broke out in the United States earlier this year.

The county was among the first to institute stay-at-home orders, which enabled it to flatten the curve. The county continues to open new free testing sites for residents as it slowly reopens for business.

As of June 30, the county had 4,265 total reported coronavirus cases with 156 deaths from COVID-19, which is caused by the virus, according to its COVID-19 dashboard.

The World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a global pandemic March 11 when the county was already beginning to institute physical distancing and sheltering in place.

It shouldn't be a surprise that a diverse group of LGBTQ and women community leaders have navigated Silicon Valley through the pandemic.

Dr. Sara Cody, the county's public health officer and public health department director, other public health experts, such as gay Drs. George Han and Marty Fenstersheib, and LGBTQ staff have guided the county's COVID-19 efforts.

Recently Cody and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors announced a revised reopening plan as cases in the state continue to climb.

Han is the county's deputy health officer/infectious disease and response branch director. Fenstersheib is the county's former public health officer who came out of retirement to serve as the county's COVID-19 testing officer.

The diversity was highlighted among county employees who shifted gears from their usual jobs to respond to COVID-19, many told the Bay Area Reporter.

"There has to be cultural competence to any response to a pandemic, otherwise the response is not effective," said David Campos, a gay man who's a county deputy executive director, about the importance of a diverse team, but also one with a queer leadership.

Campos, who is currently serving as the public information officer for the county's Emergency Operations Center, explained Cody's methodology for her guidance through the pandemic.

Cody, an ally, worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early and that guided her swift and measured response to the pandemic. She also quickly worked with public health directors around the Bay Area — including San Francisco Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax, a gay man — for the region's response to the global pandemic. Focused on Silicon Valley, she set up a pandemic response infrastructure and guidelines for the county's measured reopening, Campos said.

"I think that she also understood that it wasn't only about one county responding but there was a need to respond as a region," said Campos, who previously served as a San Francisco supervisor and is currently chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party.

That led to most Bay Area counties instituting stay-at-home orders simultaneously in mid-March, followed quickly by Governor Gavin Newsom's statewide stay-at-home order a few days later.

Santa Clara County's response team reacted quickly to prepare, contain, and ramp up testing. Now, it is focused on contact tracing and reopening in a slow and measured way, Campos said.

It's all an effort to have an infrastructure in place as the county and the Bay Area reopens to help prevent a second wave or a spike that is greater than the initial one, which is a very real possibility, he said.

Been here before
The coronavirus pandemic reminded many in the LGBTQ community of the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

"Dealing with a pandemic and epidemic that has a potential to affect and kill so many people is not new to the LGBTQ community," Campos said. "Because of that experience, it is not surprising that so many key players in this response come from our community."

Campos believes that knowledge gained from the HIV/AIDS crisis and the LGBTQ community's response to it is applicable to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"I think that we can use that knowledge and apply it to how we are responding to this crisis," he said, talking about recognizing and acknowledging vulnerability, adjusting to a new reality, education, protection, and working together.

"I think that is going to be essential if we are going to succeed in dealing with this pandemic," said Campos.

Fenstersheib, who was a health officer for the county from 1984 to 2012, echoed those comments.

"We must at present rely on prevention measures to protect ourselves as well as those we love," he said in a statement to the B.A.R.

He added that both pandemics have taught officials that "being transparent and truthful is critical in garnering the trust of those most impacted," many of whom are in minority communities.

"The LGBTQI community lost too many but nevertheless persevered," Fenstersheib said. "We can take from that experience with HIV/AIDS the lessons of doing all we can to survive until we eventually have a treatment or a vaccine."

Han didn't respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.

To meet the needs of at-risk and communities of color the county also implemented a language access team and a racial and health equity team to address disparities, said Ricardo Romero-Morales, a gay Latinx man who's a program specialist for the county's public health department.

Many LGBTQ South Bay community leaders and residents expressed pride in the county and the entire Bay Area's response to the pandemic.

"One of the things that makes our local leadership pretty unique is that we have folks that are representing the communities that they are serving," said Adrienne Keel, director of LGBTQ programs at the LGBTQ Youth Space. "The difference that makes is there's a constant kind of consideration for those who are frequently unconsidered."

The youth space is a program of Family and Children's Services of Silicon Valley, which is a division of Caminar.

"I feel pretty proud of the response by local government," said Keel, expressing appreciation for the government's "compassion for people versus profit" response to the pandemic.

"They reacted quickly. There was not a dismissiveness about the severity of COVID-19 that we've seen with other politicians and other local governments," she continued. "Responding quickly with science, reason, and logic has been incredibly comforting as a South Bay resident."

Being counted
Campos said that one of the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic is that the data being collected and that is available within the health care system is "not as complete as we would want it to be" not just around sexual orientation and gender identity, but also around race and ethnicity.

"The reports are incomplete," said Campos. "There is like 20% to 30% where the race and ethnicity are not known."

The one thing county leaders know is that communities where there are higher rates of poverty and income inequality have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, Campos said, but leaders don't know why.

"I think that this is an opportunity for the state of California to really look at how this information is collected and we need to make changes going forward ... so that we can better understand the impact that something like this is having on specific communities," Campos said.

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) is pushing a bill in the Legislature that would mandate sexual orientation and gender identity data be collected for COVID-19 patients. The Senate passed Senate Bill 932 40-0 June 25. It now heads to the Assembly.

Romero-Morales, 30, who survived COVID-19 himself, believes that capturing data about the LGBTQ community as well as other minorities is important, but he warned about how the information is collected.

"I also do want to be very cautious about how we go about capturing this data," said Romero-Morales. "Many community members who identify as members of the LGBTQ community are from different races and ethnicities ... so we are also dealing with a lot of cultural issues."

In addition to cultural issues there are contact tracing concerns about handling people's personal information and their contacts being sensitive to not outing LGBTQ people.

"This is definitely something that we have to be very careful in terms of how we approach disclosing sexual orientation," said Romero-Morales, expressing the importance of having LGBTQ people involved in the process of creating contact tracing questions as well as serving as contact tracers.

Currently, the county has enlisted employees and volunteers to conduct contact tracing, he said.

The county's Office of LGBTQ Affairs is still operating virtually, Maribel Martinez, the office's director, said in a statement to the B.A.R.

"We have increased our social media efforts and online engagement so that the community knows we are here for them," said Martinez, a queer woman of color who has also convened monthly calls with LGBTQ service providers and organizations in the county for support and resource sharing.

Martinez pointed out that many organizations transitioned quickly to virtual platforms to serve communities from youth to seniors and worked sensitively around digital divide and computer competency challenges, she said.

"Our community is strong and resilient," said Martinez, while recognizing that many are suffering food and housing insecurity as well as safety issues due to the shelter-in-place mandate. The office has been responding to these needs with access to LGBTQ-friendly resources.

Going forward
Martinez praised South Bay residents and the greater Bay Area for doing a "phenomenal job in flattening the curve and taking preventative measures to slow the spread," of COVID-19, she said.

However, the virus is still at large. As county leaders slowly lift the shelter-in-place restrictions they are remaining vigilant, watching for signs of trouble and continuing to update the community about new developments.

Romero-Morales, who had COVID-19 in early March but wasn't hospitalized, reminded people to continue to practice social distancing despite it being summer.

"I can honestly tell you that this has been the sickest I've ever been in my entire life," said Romero-Morales about his experience. "It was definitely an experience that I don't want anybody else to encounter."

To volunteer as a contact tracer, visit https://www.sccgov.org/sites/covid19/Pages/i-can-help.aspx

For LGBTQ COVID-19 resources, visit www.sccgov.org/sites/lgbtq/COVID-19/Pages/home.aspx

To get tested for COVID-19, visit https://www.sccgov.org/sites/covid19/Pages/covid19-testing.aspx

If you feel anxious, angry, or sad reach out to family, friends or call 1-800-704-0900 or text RENEW to 741741. If you don't feel safe at home and need assistance call 2-1-1 or visit www.sccendviolence.org for information.

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