As new COVID-19 infections show continued signs of slowing in Tulare County, the Department of Health and Human Services said on Tuesday that it had begun distributing billions of dollars to rural health care providers to ease the financial pressures brought by the coronavirus pandemic and to help hospitals stay open.
The funding comes as the Tulare County Health and Human Service Agency reported 39 new COVID-19-related deaths for the week ending on Nov. 24.
November's 103-person COVID-19 related death toll marks the third-highest month in fatalities since the pandemic started in March 2020. During the height of the deadly winter surge, monthly death tolls were 192 in January and 163 in February.
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Since August, the county's weekly COVID-19 death toll had hovered around 20, making the last week’s 39 one of the highest reported totals for any week of the pandemic.
As the grim Tulare County COVID-19 death toll continues to rise — health officials previously reported that 90% of the dead were not vaccinated — some help is on the way. Just more than 50 Tulare County healthcare providers received $10.8 million in federal funds to help treat the pandemic, according to data released by the federal government.
Top Tulare County recipients of the funding include:
Visalia-based Kaweah Health: $5.8 million
Porterville-based Sierra View Health Care District: $1.3 million
Porterville-based Valley Healthcare System: $1.3 million
Visalia-based Family Healthcare Network: $1 million
Visalia-based Dr. Shyam Bhaskar, INC, $362,984
Adventist Health Tulare: $259,196
In total, the agency is distributing $7.5 billion to more than 40,000 health care providers across the nation. The money will help recoup revenue losses healthcare providers wracked up during the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency said.
“When it comes to a rural provider, there are a number of costs that are incurred, that sometimes are different from what you see with urban providers or suburban providers,” Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, said in an interview with the New York Times. “And oftentimes, they’re unique only to rural providers.”
Kaweah Health, for instance, took a significant revenue hit when the hospital was forced to stop elective surgeries because of major COVID-19 surges during the pandemic that started in March 2020, Kaweah Health CEO Gary Herbst has said in previous interviews with the Times-Delta/Advance-Register.
Tulare County health woes worsened by pandemic
Tulare County, which has one of the state's least healthy populations of patients with high cases of diabetes, obesity, and other chronic health conditions as well as people without health insurance, struggles with health care under normal conditions, let alone a global pandemic that is even more lethal for people with underlying health conditions rampant locally.
The new funding program hopes to help places like Tulare County. Under the program, every eligible provider that serves at least one Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP beneficiary in rural parts of the country will receive at least $500. Payments will range up to $43 million, with an average payment of $170,700, according to an analysis by the New York Times.
Payments are based on how many claims a health care provider submitted for rural patients covered by these programs from January 2019 through September 2020.
The money can be spent on salaries to recruit and retain health care workers and supplies, equipment and infrastructure related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
More funding to attract health care workers to rural areas such as Tulare County may also be on the way. On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris announced a $1.5 billion program to tackle the shortage of health care workers in underserved tribal, rural, and urban communities.
Kaweah Health and other Tulare County health providers have struggled to hire and retain health care providers, especially nurses and doctors, Herbst has previously told the Times-Delta/Advance-Register.
In early November, Herbst reported that the hospital — the largest health care provider in Tulare County — had about 700 job openings and struggled to find applicants.
New infections metrics improving in Tulare County, deaths still near records
Tulare County saw 522 new COVID-19 infections the week ending Nov. 24, more evidence the more virulent Delta variant-fueled pandemic wave that started in August has finally slowed.
The county had seen more than 1,000 new COVID-19 infections a week since early August. The surge has put strains on local hospitals, forcing Kaweah Health to declare an emergency in early November when the hospital ran out of space to treat sick people. Hospital leaders attributed the situation to low vaccination rates across the central San Joaquin Valley.
Since the pandemic started in March 2020, 69,295 Tulare County residents have been infected with COVID-19, and 1,078 people have died from complications of the virus. The death rate in Tulare County is 1.5 per 100 infections. That means for every 200 infections, three people have died in the county.
Medical and public health experts say vaccination is the best way to avoid severe illness and death from COVID-19.
In Tulare County, 48% of people living in Tulare County are fully vaccinated as of Nov. 22. The county has administered more than 497,451 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. That's up 2.19% from the previous week's tally of 486,805 COVID-19 doses administered.
Just more than 63% of people in California are fully vaccinated, for a total of 24,797,254 people. The five counties with the highest percentage of their population fully vaccinated in California as of Nov. 22 are Marin County (79%), San Francisco County (78%), Santa Clara County (77%), Contra Costa County (76%), and San Mateo County (75%), all in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Wire reports contributed to this report.
James Ward covers entertainment, news, sports, and lifestyles for the Visalia Times-Delta/Tulare Advance-Register. Follow him on Twitter. Get alerts and keep up on all things Tulare County for as little as $1 a month. Subscribe today.
This article originally appeared on Visalia Times-Delta: COVID-19 update: Federal help on way as Tulare County sees more deaths