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Rural California county says Newsom-backed coronavirus testing clinic is a ‘boondoggle’

A view downhill on a small town Main Street
Main Street in Susanville, Calif., where Lassen County had offered its own coronavirus testing clinics until a private company hired by the state took over.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A rural Northern California health department says it was handling coronavirus testing just fine until the state got involved.

In Lassen County, health officials had been running their own free testing clinics since last spring. But in January, OptumServe, a private company hired by the state, took over, leading to what the county spokesman called an inefficient and expensive “boondoggle.”

Now, county officials are cutting ties with OptumServe and blasting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration over centralized testing efforts.

OptumServe staffers were “coughing violently” and not wearing proper protective gear at a clinic this month, county health officials alleged in a scathing letter to the company.

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OptumServe informed residents of negative test results via expensive FedEx next-day delivery instead of calling, texting or emailing, wrote Dr. Kenneth Korver, the county’s public health officer, and Barbara Longo, director of health and social services, in the Feb. 22 letter.

The state-sponsored clinics also performed fewer tests and were open less frequently than the county-run ones, county officials said.

Richard Egan, the county spokesman, said Newsom is managing the pandemic from the top down without involving local officials who know their communities.

“The state is taking a system that is not broken and ‘fixing’ it until it is” broken, Egan said.

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Newsom announced in April that the state would partner with OptumServe on 80 testing sites in underserved communities. State records show that OptumServe was awarded at least two contracts totaling up to $538 million.

In a statement, the California Department of Public Health said the state’s Testing Task Force “strongly disagrees with the facts and characterization” outlined in the county’s letter.

“Lassen County was provided direct assistance and engagement with OptumServe to remediate initial concerns,” the statement read. “The Testing Task Force was not given the same opportunity to address lingering concerns mentioned by Lassen County.”

OptumServe employees are screened for COVID-19 symptoms, according to the state.

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The company sends negative test results to patients via their “preferred contact method — text, phone, email,” only using next-day delivery if a person does not have access to those methods or does not answer the phone after 10 attempts, according to the statement.

Aaron Albright, a spokesman for OptumServe, referred a Times reporter to the state Public Health Department, as did a spokesman for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.

The fallout in Lassen County is the latest example of tensions between rural communities and the Newsom administration over its handling of the pandemic — frustrations that have led to a growing movement to recall the governor.

Rural areas have chafed at Newsom’s statewide rules, arguing that one size does not fit all and that local leaders should not be bigfooted by politicians in Sacramento.

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Last spring, some sparsely populated Northern California counties with few coronavirus cases reopened businesses in open defiance of the governor’s stay-at-home order.

In the Central Valley, Atwater declared itself a “sanctuary city for business” and reopened, while the town of Coalinga declared all businesses to be essential.

In Lassen County, frustrations with the state have been growing for months.

Last summer, the state transferred infected inmates from San Quentin State Prison to the California Correctional Center in Susanville, the Lassen County seat, leading to a major outbreak. County officials said they were not consulted about the transfers and accused the state corrections department of showing a blatant disregard for the community.

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There was little surprise, Egan said, when the state-sponsored testing clinics had problems.

Since May, the county had offered three-hour coronavirus testing clinics three days a week at its public health facility in Susanville, testing 300 to 400 people a week, Egan said.

The county had established a relationship with a lab in neighboring Shasta County, with the state paying for the testing. But late last year, the state said it would stop funding that effort and would instead take over the clinics using OptumServe.

“I find it hard to believe they can fly people in to do these tests cheaper than we could do with our own staff,” Egan said.

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The company used the county’s facilities, offering testing only once a week.

The county’s letter decried the company’s “beyond disappointing” testing numbers, saying OptumServe collected 200 specimens during four 12-hour clinics in January and February.

In their letter, Korver and Longo said county employees expressed concerns after hearing OptumServe staffers coughing.

“OptumServe staff are exposed to the COVID-19 virus on a daily basis and yet travel from county to county without proper quarantine measures,” according to the letter.

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After cutting ties last week, the county will return to its previous testing system, Egan said. Testing will still be free to the public, with the Shasta County lab billing patients’ insurance, he said. The details are being worked out on how to pay for uninsured people, he said, but the lab could possibly use its own federal CARES Act funding.

On Monday, the same day Lassen County officials sent their letter, Newsom announced that the state would partner with OptumServe to open 11 vaccination sites in “some of the hardest-hit or most at-risk communities in the Central Valley.”

In Lassen County, county staffers are vaccinating people using doses provided by the state.

Egan said he is concerned the state will intrude, as it did with testing.

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“Hopefully we can get the majority of our population that wants to be vaccinated … vaccinated before the state takes over, with the fear that it’ll be a boondoggle,” he said.


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