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How Santa Barbara County is protecting its most vulnerable residents from COVID-19

How Santa Barbara County is protecting its most vulnerable residents from COVID-19

Picture of Brooke Holland
Workers pick strawberries in a field west of Santa Maria in April 2020.
Workers pick strawberries in a field west of Santa Maria in April 2020.
(Photo: Janene Scully/Noozhawk)

The novel coronavirus public health crisis has completely upended life since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in Santa Barbara County on March 15.

From the start of the pandemic to now, nine months in, the COVID-19 crisis has disproportionately affected the county’s most vulnerable community members. Detailing how and why the disease is inequitably impacting certain communities is more important than ever to understand the severity of illness amid the growing number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

In Santa Barbara County, for example, the latest local data reveals that Latinx and Hispanic residents represent about 48% of the population, but they account for 65% of COVID-19 cases, 56% of COVID-19-related deaths and 74% of COVID-19 hospitalizations countywide.

The Santa Maria Valley, an area with many undocumented residents and indigenous immigrants, has been by far the county’s hardest hit area during the COVID-19 pandemic. Local public health officials have struggled to explain why the pandemic is disproportionately affecting these individuals.

With public health data guiding my reporting, I’m embarking on a multipart series that will investigate the impact of COVID-19 prevention efforts on Santa Barbara County’s most vulnerable populations.

This Center for Health Journalism's 2020 Data Fellowship project will explore government and community partnerships formed in Santa Barbara County to help those at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, such as residents in skilled nursing homes, migrant farm workers, jail inmates, college students and people experiencing homelessness. The online series will take a comprehensive look at key factors that put certain communities at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19. It will also dig deeper into what services various partners are offering, and the challenges to fill the health and safety gaps in communities most at risk.

The series will be searching for real-life coronavirus experiences and concerns of vulnerable populations in Santa Barbara County. The reporting will include firsthand accounts from homeless people, Spanish-speaking residents, farmworkers, senior communities, students and others.

The reporting and newsgathering efforts will be viewed through a solutions journalism lens. An influential Santa Barbara County task force focused on COVID-19 is being replicated in neighboring Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. The data from numerous sources throughout Santa Barbara County will examine the success rates of government and community partnerships that are actively engaging in COVID-19 prevention.

Among the questions I’ll be exploring: How are government and community partnerships developing educational resources, providing direct services and collaborating on outreach to those most vulnerable? What data is driving their decision-making in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? How are partners supporting policy change at the local level? What type of innovative programs are trusted community partners developing for vulnerable communities?

This reporting project is driven by the desire to raise public awareness of COVID-19 in the community and cast light on possible relevant solutions in the face of the crisis.


Picture of Kathy Jean Schultz

Best of luck on this multipart series; it's a much-needed topic. I lived or worked in Santa Barbara for many years and saw many of your Noozhawk stories. It's good to see you here on CHJ.

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Are you passionate about helping journalists understand and illuminate the social factors that contribute to health and health disparities at a time when COVID-19 has highlighted the costs of such inequities? Looking to play a big role in shaping journalism today in the United States? The USC Center for Health Journalism seeks an enterprising and experienced journalism leader for our new position of “Manager of Projects.” 



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