El Centro Regional Medical Center is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy El Centro Regional Medical Center)

For Luis Olmedo, environmental justice work must continue during a pandemic — especially in Imperial County.

The executive director of Comite Civico de Valle was on his way Tuesday morning to a county Air Pollution Control Board meeting, where he planned to watch on his phone outside and wait to enter the building until his organization’s agenda item came up. He was doing his part to help stop the spread of coronavirus by keeping his distance from others.

“Life has changed over the past 48 hours,” Olmedo said in a phone interview with inewsource before the meeting. “And it’s getting tighter and tighter when it comes to the ability to carry out normal duties and the way we’re able to carry them. Everything is changing.”

Why this matters

Imperial County has fewer than 300 hospital beds and long-standing community health challenges. Despite those challenges, county officials are working to protect the region’s 180,000 residents as the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

Imperial County, one of the poorest counties in California and with one of the highest rates for people with asthma, has had two residents test positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday night, when the latest figures were released. The husband and wife contracted the novel coronavirus while traveling in Florida, officials said.

They were initially treated at the El Centro Regional Medical Center, with one later being quarantined at home. Both were moved to a San Diego hospital to recover.

No additional county cases have been reported since those two on March 11. Thirty-nine people have been tested as of Wednesday night, according to the county Public Health Department. Twenty-nine have tested negative, with eight results pending.

There is no evidence that coronavirus is spreading in the county, but officials have warned the numbers may grow.

That worries Olmedo, who’s concerned about the spread of coronavirus among some of Imperial County’s most vulnerable populations — including those who already suffer from respiratory illnesses.

About 12% of the county’s residents have asthma, compared to nearly 9% statewide. The county ranked among the highest in California for children’s visits to emergency rooms for asthma-related issues. And while air quality has improved in the region, some parts still fail to meet federal standards.

“And then you add another layer to the already scarred and vulnerable lungs — it is going to take a toll on our healthcare system,” said Olmedo, whose organization works on asthma-related issues.

Imperial County’s two hospitals have fewer than 300 beds. In a 2016 state application, El Centro Regional Medical Center said that in fiscal 2013 there was one primary care doctor for every 4,170 county residents. That’s compared to one for every 1,341 residents statewide.

The El Centro hospital’s patients face health care disparities, and access to care “has long proven to be a major challenge,” according to the application.

A hospital hallway in El Centro Regional Medical Center is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy El Centro Regional Medical Center)

Even so, the county’s health care leaders say they’re prepared to handle the spread of coronavirus in their community.

Dr. Stephen Munday, the county’s health officer, announced an order Tuesday that bans gatherings of 50 or more people and placed restrictions on restaurants and other businesses beginning Friday. He also advised hospitals to “preserve resources, including delaying non-emergent or elective surgeries or procedures when feasible.”

Munday’s order will continue through March 31.

“Many of my fellow health officers around the state have chosen to take action to try to protect the public. Many of them chose to do so because there was significant community spread going on around them,” he said at a Tuesday news conference. “I have given my recommendations to the Board of Supervisors that rather than wait for community spread to occur (locally), we should take action to prevent community spread.”

RELATED: Tracking the Spread of coronavirus in San Diego County

The county Office of Education closed the region’s public schools on Tuesday until at least April 17, reversing an earlier decision. San Diego County school districts made the decision last week to close schools on Monday.

At Imperial County schools, breakfasts and lunches are still being served on weekdays at more than 30 sites.

Alvaro Ramirez, safety and emergency preparedness coordinator at the county Office of Education, said superintendents and public health officials decided to close schools “as a precautionary measure in the best interest of our community.”

“While the health trends in our area remained relatively stable over the weekend, those at our neighboring areas did not,” Ramirez told inewsource in an email. “The Imperial Valley is a closely knit, interconnected community, with strong ties to our neighboring areas.”

The Imperial Irrigation District, which provides electricity to 155,000 residential and commercial customers, announced Tuesday it will not disconnect electricity for non-payment until further notice. It also is temporarily waiving late fees. Spokesman Robert Schettler said no changes have been made to the district’s water services, which are not offered within city limits. About 97% of the water it delivers goes to agricultural customers, he said.

At the El Centro Regional Medical Center, CEO Adolphe Edward told inewsource the hospital has focused on infection prevention, including the use of an ultraviolet system for disinfecting. He pointed to the hospital’s affiliation with the UC San Diego Health System, saying the medical center will continue to rely on UCSD’s expertise.

The hospital has enough surgical masks, ventilators and other supplies to continue to serve patients if coronavirus cases increase, he said. Officials also have asked the county Public Health Department for more surgical masks and hand sanitizers.

“We are told that we’re going to receive additional shipments,” Edward said. “We’re not worried at all about the actual level of equipment that we have.”

He said if people take the advice of experts and practice social distancing, the county’s system will be able to respond to the crisis.

“We know what to do to protect the public,” Edward said. “We are doing everything we can to protect them. Because ‘them’ is us. We are the community. We’re doing this because we are from the community.”

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Daniela Flores, a 28-year-old Imperial Valley native and a public health professional, said it took several days to persuade her parents that for now they should close their 30-year-old floral business in Calexico. They were the first business in their neighborhood to close, Flores said.

The county is a “word-of-mouth community,” she said, and not all residents are accustomed to interacting with local officials. Flores hopes neighbors and relatives will use their networks to spread information rapidly, especially to those who are not regularly online.

“My hope is that we take a community approach at this and not leave it all up to the local officials because, frankly, they have a lot on their hands,” Flores said.

Olmedo said he’s seeking ways for his organization to help. And while he’s also concerned for other vulnerable parts of the state, he’s optimistic, too.

“It takes time,” he said. “Things don’t happen overnight. And even in understanding that, I feel very confident of the fact that we live in California, in a state that is taking care of its citizens and residents.”

Do you have information that could further inewsource’s mission of holding officials and institutions accountable in the COVID-19 pandemic? Help make sure our journalism is responsible and focused on the right issues. Reach out at contact@inewsource.org

Jennifer Bowman serves as inewsource's Assistant Editor. Before that, she was an investigative reporter focusing on government accountability issues in southern San Diego and Imperial counties. She also used to cover education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers...