Bakersfield College’s Rural Health Equity And Learning (HEAL) Collaborative, hosted a webinar on Tuesday, focusing on the Central Valley in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The afternoon gave public health leaders an opportunity to discuss advancing strategies around the mental health of vulnerable communities, the barriers faced by migrant workers, contact tracing for disease control, and the need to reshape public health infrastructure.
According to the U.S Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans live in rural America and despite the importance of these rural communities to the overall health of the nation, federal policies often leave them behind. The 26,000-square miles from Merced to Kern County constitutes a significant population of low-income rural residents with the nation's lowest educational attainment, resulting in reduced employment opportunities, increased poverty, and limited access to healthcare. With a goal to lift the voices of rural communities through research, connecting available resources, and raising support for positive policy changes. The HEAL Collaborative is anchored in their work by four academic partners: Bakersfield College, UC Merced, CSU Fresno, and UCSF Fresno.
Over the past two years, well before the COVID-19 outbreak, doctors, healthcare workers, and policy makers committed time and energy to this community-engaged research and policy initiative. Now, more than ever before, health disparities affecting rural communities have been made more apparent.
“The Central Valley is vital to California and our rural communities hold many keys to overcoming the challenges that the current and future pandemics may present,” said BC’s President, Dr. Sonya Christian. She continued, “As this pandemic continues to evolve and greatly impact our community, we must respond with diligence towards research, innovation, creativity, and most of all persistent and decisive action that will suppress the spread and keep our communities safe. It is also our shared responsibility, as leaders, educators, and agents of change to work together, leading our communities towards not only beating the virus, but also tackling its profound social and economic consequences.”
The impacts on mental health during the pandemic have been astounding. A recent poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53% of adults in the country report their mental health has been negatively impacted due to stress and concerns over coronavirus. Dr. Sidra J. Goldman-Mellor presented during the webinar on this topic. She said, “The unemployment levels that have reached record highs are just one example of the disruptions that have been caused to everyone's daily lives. It’s not a surprise to learn that our mental health and anxiety levels are very sensitive to traumatic events as well as the social and economic consequences of those events.” She concluded with the note that individual level solutions such as mental health care, self-care, and social support do not address the policy failures of the larger government and public sector systems.
Including mental health, a variety of other rural health topics covered by the speakers, including:
In her closing segment, Dr. Murphy impactfully stated, “We need to rethink what is possible and in doing so, we need to center health at the nexus of everything we do, particularly policy making and especially at the federal level.” She continued commending the great work being done at the community and regional level but pointed out the gap in service at the federal level. During the webinar, Dr. Murphy also introduced the idea of a Congressional Health Office (CHO) which would prioritize health and well-being as critical components of policy making. “Everyone should have the opportunity for health,” she said.
The work of HEAL got a strong start in 2019, with a sold-out regional convening of healthcare professionals from our community along with educators, policy makers and nonprofit leaders at the Bakersfield College Delano Campus in November. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 spring event was postponed and shifted to focus more on rural health and the pandemic.
“The word HEAL is very powerful. It evokes an understanding that things will get better, things will get stronger and more vibrant, and we definitely need that these days,” said Christian.