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Local News

Ending state of emergency means changes in emergency benefits

Recipients of emergency CalFresh benefits will receive their final allotment this month. And the mandate for continuous coverage under Medi-Cal will end at the end of March.

The end of the state of emergency due to covid will change testing, Medi-Cal benefits, and Cal-Fresh issuances for thousands of people in Mendocino County. The state of emergency will end next week, on February 28th, and with it the measures to meet the emergency. That includes the free OptumServ test to treat sites, which have already left the county, and the emergency CalFresh food benefits that saw some struggling families through the financial hardships during the pandemic and the public health response.

Last year, Mendocino County’s CalFresh issuances went up to just a little over $48 million, compared to $18.7 million in 2018. Households on the emergency program will receive their final rations next month. In December of 2018, the county had 5,948 CalFresh cases, which consisted of 10,946 individuals, at an average monthly cost of just over $1.5 million. By 2022, the cases shot up to 9,901, with 16,327 individuals. The average monthly issuance last year was a little more than $3 million. At last week’s public health briefing, Rachel Ebel-Elliott, Deputy Director of the county’s Social Services department, said that, “I can tell you that for 2022, of that $48 million in CalFresh benefits that were issued, $18 million were through the emergency allotment. If we project into the next year, we’re going to see a significant reduction in CalFresh benefits to our households.”

Ebel-Elliott also said that Medi-Cal benefits are about to get a second look, as an emergency mandate expires. Since March 2020, Medi-Cal beneficiaries have remained enrolled in the program regardless of changes in income or property. “However, that is going to be changing,” she said. “As of March 31, the continuous coverage mandate will no longer be in effect.” Beginning in April, “We will start our annual redetermination process.” She added that, “This will happen in a sequence…We’re not going to get to April 1 and every household is going to have to renew their Medi-Cal during that month.” She asked Medi-Cal recipients to make sure their contact information is up to date.

Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren said that, although the free test to treat sites have closed, another telehealth provider is now offering the covid drug Paxlovid to Californians free of charge. And there are some sources for free rapid tests. Patients who have tested positive for covid can get prescriptions for Paxlovid through their regular health providers, or through a telehealth service called Sesame Care. The telephone number is (833) 686-5051, or online at www.sesamecare.com/covid/ca. “Say you’re from California,” Coren advised, because the California Department of Public Health has paid for California residents to use the service.

Coren continues to recommend vaccines and boosters, and to test before and after travel and gatherings, and at signs of illness. Free tests are available from schools and health centers and from the federal government at covidtests.gov or by calling 1(800) 232-0233.

Wastewater surveillance in northern California shows decreasing levels of covid in the population, though Coren acknowledged that, with so many small septic systems in Mendocino County, it’s hard to get a statistically significant sample size. The cities of Ukiah and Fort Bragg are conducting wastewater testing, which is largely subsidized by the state and federal governments, though local jurisdictions still need to contribute staff time to the endeavor.

“There are issues of cost, even though it’s being subsidized,” Coren cautioned. “The wastewater system that wants to go online still has some personnel time to put into doing that. It’s a regular test three times a week at this point, and it has to be mailed off to a laboratory that can check the levels that come from it and then they also do some whole genome testing to see if there are new viruses that are emerging.”

Covid is not gone, though Coren said new variants are not particularly threatening. As the state of emergency wraps up and the health department demobilizes, he said attention will turn to other public health concerns, like tuberculosis, syphilis, climate change, and childhood vaccines.

Local News
Sarah Reith came to Mendocino County in 2008 and worked as a reporter and freelancer, joining KZYX as a community news reporter in 2017. She became the KZYX News Director in March, 2023.