covid testing

Health and Medicine in the Coachella Valley

Providers emerge better 
prepared for crises and 
eager to expand telemedicine.

Steven Biller Current PSL, Health & Wellness, Vision

covid testing
Rapid COVID-19 testing has come to the Coachella Valley.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY ABBOTT LABORATORIES

If people wear masks, social distance, wash hands, and stay home as much as possible — and if public health officials can deploy rapid testing and contact tracing to identify and quarantine those who become infected with the novel coronavirus — we can substantially curb the spread of COVID-19 and reopen our economy, says Kim Saruwatari, director of Riverside University Health System–Public Health.

Until then, she warns, we will see increases in the number of infections as well as a rash of other healthcare maladies — social isolation, family violence and abuse, debt and housing insecurity — that impact health.

“Everybody is rolling up their sleeves and trying to help our community,” she told Palm Springs Life in the healthcare segment of its nine-part webinar series “The Economic Future of the Coachella Valley.” “That’s one of the good outcomes.”

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But unemployment is pressuring local food banks, people are putting off their medical care (including for chronic conditions such as diabetes) because they’re afraid of catching the virus in medical facilities, and healthcare providers are seeing a spike in psychological distress due to fear, uncertainty, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep.

This, she says, is the health crisis of the moment.

“Unemployment is a health issue,” says Jenna LeComte-Hinely, CEO of the research firm Health Assessment and Research for Communities, aka HARC. “Anyone who has ever been unemployed will tell you how stressful it is to worry about whether you’ll be able to pay the rent or buy your food. Being that stressed all the time takes a toll on physical health, not just your mental health.”

HARC’s Coachella Valley COVID-19 needs assessment study revealed food insecurity at the top of the list. “You cannot be healthy or learn or help others if you’re hungry,” LeComte-Hinely says. “And the food banks are getting tapped.”

She said healthcare providers should encourage prevention, such as diet and exercise to curb obesity, which often links to heart disease and cancer — conditions that put patients at greater risk of succumbing to COVID-19.

In terms of first response, local hospitals, which routinely run disaster drills, responded ably to the rush of patients suffering from the virus. And, says Ken Wheat, senior vice president and chief financial officer of Eisenhower Health, “the pandemic has pushed all healthcare institutions into better disaster preparedness. This was a real crisis that went on for a long time and let us develop those skills and adapt.”

That’s not the only silver lining. The crisis has also accelerated healthcare providers’ use of telemedicine, which Wheat says will continue well beyond the COVID-19 crisis. “We’re already seeing regulations loosened to allow health systems to provide telemedicine,” he says. “But we have a retirement population, and their preference is to get back to the office and see their physician and have that interaction. There’s a lot of comfort in that visit.

“That said,” he continues, “telehealth has allowed our seasonal residents to continue their relationship with their physician.

“Everybody is rolling up their sleeves and trying to help our community. That’s one of the good outcomes.”
— Kim Saruwatari, director of Riverside University Health System–Public Health

“In healthcare, we’re preparing for a 5G world, which will open up medicine to more people. Specialists will be able to access diagnostic-quality images, and it also enables monitoring devices and wearables so people can get more care at home. It also gives us the ability to crunch data and look at unique populations to see what’s working, what’s not.

“It’s coming, it’s going to evolve quickly, and it will be expensive.”

The Coachella Valley Economic Partnership has been advocating for a 5G wireless infrastructure to compete on a level playing field with other regions.

The technology enables download speeds of at least 10 times faster than the valley experiences now, and that, says CVEP’s CEO Joe Wallace, will improve everything from medical care to home security.

“Bandwidth is as important today as electricity was in the 1930s,” Wallace says. “Rural electrification under FDR’s New Deal opened up rural America for business, and bandwidth can do the same today. Without it, there are vital things that cannot happen.

“If the Coachella Valley is to participate in the jobs of the future from either an in-place or telecommuting perspective, we must have competitive bandwidth,” he adds. “Access to education is already dependent on access to bandwidth. A 5G-enabled Internet of Things will connect people, data, and devices, creating a surge of economic growth.”

Elected leaders hold the key to the valley’s high-speed internet. But progress will come slowly and at great cost. Some local zoning laws limit where small cells can be installed. Wallace estimates it would take more than 40,000 cells to cover the valley at a cost of about $10,000 each — more than $400 million per year. “The investment,” he says, “will help us attract high-wage tech jobs and increase our wage and tax base.”

The question is, who will pay?

• VIDEO: View The Economic Future of the Coachella Valley Webinar Series.