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SPIRIT OF COLLABORATION The Diocese received the Community Champion Award from Riverside County on April 5 in recognition of the partnering work the Diocesan Emergency Operations Collaborative (EOC) has done with the County to promote COVID-19 testing and vaccines. Accepting the award on behalf of the Diocese were EOC Director Ann Marie Gallant (fourth from left), Father Rafael Partida, EV, (third from right) and Father Francisco Gomez, S.T., (second from right).

By Anneliese Esparza
Managing Editor

Throughout the pandemic, dozens of parishes in the Diocese have hosted vaccination and testing clinics, in partnership with public health departments of both Riverside and San Bernardino counties. Riverside County recently recognized this collaborative effort by giving the Diocese the Public Health Community Champion Award.

The Diocese was one of the 11 community partner organizations that Riverside University Health System – Public Health honored with the award for their work with health officials during the pandemic. The organizations were recognized April 5 during the Riverside County Board of Supervisors Meeting.

“These organizations have stepped up and gone beyond what would normally be expected of them,” said Kim Saruwatari, Director of Riverside University Healthcare System – Public Health. “They have seen the importance of giving back to the community and their efforts have benefitted many residents. We are honored to give them this much-deserved recognition.”

A total of 25 parishes in Riverside County and 30 parishes in San Bernardino County have hosted a testing and/or vaccination clinic over the last two years. A major focus has been on parishes that served underserved, high-risk populations such as immigrants and low-income individuals or on parishes in metro areas with high rates of COVID. In all, the total number of people served, combining the number of those tested and the number of those vaccinated, is over 15,000.

The partnership began with San Bernardino County before expanding to Riverside County. The Diocese had worked with San Bernardino County in the past, collaborating on emergency response to disasters like earthquakes and forest fires, but it wasn’t until COVID that the partnership became more official and ongoing.

In addition to complete responsibility for the operation of the sites, both counties have given the Diocese grant money to continue the testing and vaccine clinics; free PPE and sanitation equipment for parishes and schools, and funds for the Diocese to release Public Service Announcements in targeted media markets where high-risk populations watch TV or listen to the radio.

While the state vaccination rate exceeds 80 percent, vaccination rates in San Bernardino and Riverside counties remain below 60 percent, underscoring the need to continue the work to combat COVID-19 in our Diocese.

Accordingly, the Diocese plans to continue hosting testing and vaccination clinics for the next several months. “Until our diocesan communities approach the state vaccination average, we must remain diligent in this effort – particularly in public education which provides accurate medical and scientific information on vaccinations for various age groups,” said Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Diocese’s Emergency Operations Collaborative (EOC).

Continuing to partner with Riverside and San Bernardino Counties in these clinics is just one aspect to the Diocese’s newly unveiled plan as we move from pandemic to endemic, modeled after the State of California’s SMARTER Endemic Plan.

SMARTER is an acronym for the following: S (Shots), M (Masks), A (Awareness), R (Readiness), T (Testing), E (Education) and R (RX).

“The function of the SMARTER plan from the Governor is to ensure that the virus has been virtually eradicated as a major health risk and has become more like a recurrent ‘virus’ that we can learn to live with – like cold, flu,” Gallant said. “Thus, to continue vaccination and testing clinics ensures that we can control the community spread while a regular, recurrent annual vaccine is available to all – similar to flu shots – to protect and maintain public health without fears of fatalities.”

The Diocese’s SMARTER plan runs from March 2022 to June 2023. An abbreviated version of the plan follows:

S: SHOTS – Since vaccines are the most powerful weapon against hospitalization and serious illness, Emergency Operations Collaborative will continue to host county-run vaccination clinics at parishes. Available grant moneys will provide incentives for vaccination clinics to encourage participation.

M: MASKS – KN95 masks are not required, but strongly recommended for any parish or school activity, indoors, that has high-risk/density of participation, where reasonable sanitizing and spacing is not possible. Pastors/principals may elect mask mandates if deemed necessary for safety and health of attendees/event participants. Emergency Operations Collaborative grant funds are available for mask purchase or provided free via Counties/State.

A: AWARENESS – The State Department of Public Health will remain aware of COVID-19’s spread and evolving variants and will communicate clearly how Californians should protect themselves. Emergency Operations Collaborative will continue to share information on State and County COVID-19 directives when applicable to Diocesan operations.

R: READINESS – Since COVID-19 is not going away, the state must be ready with the tools, resources and emergency supplies necessary to respond quickly in order to maintain public health, including a well-prepared health care system. Emergency Operations Collaborative will continue active coordination with federal, state and county agencies and develop inventory of essential supplies for parishes and schools by using grant resources.

T: TESTING – Getting the right type of tests – PCR or antigen – to where they are needed most will help minimize the spread of COVID-19. Emergency Operations Collaborative will continue to coordinate testing at parish and school sites through state/county public health agencies, as well as private independent labs to increase testing opportunities on a regular basis as a preventative tool against viral spread. Grant funds will be provided to purchase additional tests as necessary.

E: EDUCATION – The State Department of Public Health will continue its work with schools, public and private, to ensure children can remain safely in classrooms for in-person instruction. Emergency Operations Collaborative will coordinate various state requirements for schools via the Office of Catholic Schools and Office of Catechetical Ministry to ensure accurate, fact-based information is disseminated to parishes and schools regarding safety of vaccines to all age-groups.

R: RX – Evolving and improving treatments will become increasingly available during the next 12 months, and become a critical tool in saving lives and preventing significant illness/hospitalization. Diocesan testing sites will begin administering on-site, anti-viral medication in “real time,” should any individual test positive at a Diocesan location. Various permission forms/waivers will be available at the time of testing, for treatment of adults and minors at the time of diagnosis.

While we are trying to adapt to the pandemic becoming an endemic, Gallant emphasized the need to continue being mindful of health and safety.
“We must not become cavalier about this virus. Mutations are occurring every week,” she said, adding that she hopes we will take the lessons we learned from COVID, such as proper hygiene and staying home when sick, and continue to do those types of things long term, keeping in mind the health of others.