Contra Costa County sets up COVID advice phone line to prevent deaths

It’s a new era in the COVID pandemic: Most precautions have been rolled back, and cases are once again on the rise in California. But with the Bay Area boasting some of the nation’s highest vaccination rates, and the availability of new therapies, Contra Costa County public health officials announced a new goal on Monday: to reduce, and ideally eliminate, “preventable” COVID deaths.

“We feel confident that you no longer have to die from COVID-19,” Contra Costa County Health Director Anna Roth said at a news conference, announcing the county’s “Path to Zero” plan to expand at-home testing and get COVID patients effective antivirals quickly. “We believe that many deaths, most deaths, are preventable at this point because we have powerful tools available.”

Since the pandemic started, Contra Costa County’s cumulative death rate is less than half of the U.S. death rate, but it has lost more than 1,300 residents to the virus.

Now, the county is reviewing those deaths to determine which ones were considered “preventable” which will help focus efforts going forward on the most vulnerable populations, said Dr. Ori Tzvieli, the county’s Health Officer. The mortality review will ask questions like “were they able to be tested in a timely manner? Did they seek out treatment and were they able to get treatment in a timely manner? Were they able to get vaccinated? Were they boosted?”

“If the answer to any of those questions is no,’” Tzvieli said, “it shows us what we did well and where we fell short.”

Contra Costa County health officials are also encouraging the use of at-home tests, and making them available at upcoming public events.

One of the main tools in the new effort is a new nurse line for residents who test positive, available to all regardless of insurance coverage, or vaccination status.

The advice nurse line will help county residents quickly determine if antiviral medication is appropriate, and then help them locate where the medication is available locally and quickly.

Any Contra Costa resident sick with COVID can now call the County’s 24/7 Advice Nurse line at (877) 661-6230 and request a prescription.

The pills can be taken at home with a prescription within a few days of symptom onset to greatly reduce the severity of the disease, and lower the chances of hospitalization and death. Roth said one of the reasons the county has turned to an advice line is because they heard residents were having a hard time locating antiviral medications.

County health officials made the announcement Monday at the Bay Point Family Health Center, a clinic operated by the county, which is also returning to providing regular health care services after two years of a public health emergency disrupted the clinic’s normal care.

“The time has come for us to think differently about this virus.” Roth said. “When a member of our community dies from COVID today, we should understand why and then work to remove any barriers to treatment that may have contributed to that death.”

With few federal and state restrictions on social gatherings, and even mask-wearing, the “Path to Zero” plan being implemented is supposed to refocus efforts on the communities most devastated by COVID.

“There are stark differences in COVID mortality rates between our wealthiest, healthiest neighborhoods and those with significant challenges to community health,” said Gilbert Salinas, chief equity officer for the health department. “Path to Zero helps us to sharpen our focus on our most vulnerable communities.”

Case rates have more than doubled in the county in recent weeks, from less than 70 average daily cases to over 180. COVID hospitalizations in the county have also more than doubled since early April, from as few as 17 COVID patients early in the month to more than 40 patients, approaching 50 in recent days.

There were 22 COVID deaths reported in the county in March 2022, and only three have been reported for April, though that might go up still as reporting can be delayed be several weeks.