Opinion: State of San Diego County speech focuses on health, homelessness, housing ... and hiking?!
San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher delivered an upbeat, ambitious State of the County speech on Tuesday night. There were a lot of proposals to like, and one specific idea that a lot of people could really love. But there was also a specific reason to worry.
It was welcome, if no surprise, that with the county — and the world — entering its third year combating the COVID-19 pandemic, much of Fletcher’s speech focused on a commitment to public health services. The first-term Democrat promised San Diego County would meet the moment and its responsibilities as the provider of public health services, in particular in response to homelessness, mental health and substance abuse issues that have only been exacerbated during the pandemic. County officials have generally handled the pandemic’s challenges well — vaccinating 2.7 million people while having half the COVID-19 death rate, as Fletcher twice noted Tuesday, of the state of Florida — and changing board policy to prevent disruptive and inappropriate conduct at public meetings. But it is a fact that in 2017 county officials failed to rise to the occasion when a hepatitis A outbreak raced through and beyond Downtown San Diego, killing 20 people and hospitalizing hundreds more.
Public health will continue to dominate the county’s attention this year in light of the rise of the more contagious Omicron subvariant, BA.2, and this week’s decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to roll out a new Pfizer and Moderna booster shot for those 50 and older who have their first booster shot already. More than 93 percent of the county’s eligible residents are vaccinated, but some demographics have far lower rates. These include a 42.2 percent vaccination rate for children ages 5 to 11, a 52.4 percent vaccination rate for Black or African American residents and a 55.1 percent vaccination rate for American Indian or Alaska Native residents.
Even now, a more proactive approach on public health issues is needed, and that’s what the county appears to intend to broadly provide. Fletcher said the city and county of San Diego will work together to set up a 150-bed homeless shelter and services tent center on county land in the Midway District, which has emerged in recent years as a magnet for those without housing. The shelter is being donated by the Lucky Duck Foundation, in another sign of the county’s collaborative approach to tough issues.
Fletcher also announced the county will provide behavioral health services to any of the 18 cities in the county if they open homelessness and support sites for county specialists to work in. And he said the county will make available $10 million in grants to cities that need help with start-up funding.
But perhaps the most intriguing, even exciting, proposal from Fletcher was his pledge to set up a new “Outdoor Experience Program” to make it easier for more San Diego families to enjoy the county’s many wonderful parks. “Not only will we cover your admission into the park, we’ll provide all the gear, instruction and assistance any individual or family needs,” he said. “And if you can’t get to the park on your own — we will cover that as well.” Available activities include day and night hiking, rock climbing, fishing, kayaking and canoeing, mountain biking and camping — experiences that can help make California feel like California. In an interview with an editorial writer, Fletcher noted such outdoor activity would bring joy to and boost the mental health of those without previous access. And he said the cost would be relatively small for the county. He thinks such a program would be the first in the nation. If it is a success, expect it to be widely copied.
But that’s if it is a success, a concern that gets to the long history of elected officials in California and elsewhere declaring their projects — whether in homelessness, behavioral health or innovative initiatives — to be winners without having that first be confirmed by the sort of metrics regularly found in the private sector. Fletcher touted the county’s much more extensive use of data analytics in offering hope that supervisors’ bold goals can be met. Still, he said, “The concern is fair. But you’ve got to give us a chance. And hold us accountable.” Will do.