Editor’s Note: For a community perspective on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, the County Times has been interviewing local movers and shakers from diverse backgrounds. We intend to publish a special report in a multimedia format on our website MercedCountyTimes.com. While all communities in America have faced the spread of the same deadly virus, we have found circumstances that are unique to Merced County, along with special individuals who are making a difference in their own hometowns. People like Rodrigo Espinoza.
Rodrigo Espinoza was re-elected to a second term on the Merced County Board of Supervisors in the March 2020 primary — just as the COVID-19 pandemic started to take hold in this region.
The population of his representative district, and one particular city within it, would end up being among the top focal points in the struggle to stop the spread of the virus.
Nearly everyone in Espinoza’s immediate family contracted the virus before he as well was infected. Fortunately they all survived, but not without some challenges.
Espinoza was up to the task. He immigrated from Mexico when he was just 10 years old. His family — both parents and five siblings — landed in Delhi where they started a life in America. They went into agriculture, and eventually farmed peaches and apples. Espinoza went to local schools, graduated from Livingston High in 1987, and then went to Stanislaus State.
Espinoza has always been involved in family farming, but he also started his own towing business. Then in 2002, after encouragement from fellow residents, he ran successfully for a spot on the Livingston City Council. He served two terms for the city by the will of voters, and then he ran for mayor in 2010 and won. Once again, he served two terms. In 2016, he decided to run for supervisor, and you guessed it, he won.
During a late February interview with the County Times, Espinosa gave some candid answers about dealing with the pandemic of 2020 and beyond from a personal and government leadership perspective.
The Times: How would you describe Livingston to someone who has never been there, nor read anything about it?
Espinoza: Livingston is just like a lot of cities, but you know, they say every community is different. It’s a really diverse community. And I really appreciate that. The city is about 70 percent Hispanic, 20 percent East Indian, and then we have Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Portuguese Americans. It’s just very diverse. And it’s a small community of 15,000 people now. …
We are blessed to have such a nice community.
The Times: How about your district? The one you represent as supervisor.
Espinoza: It’s District 1 out of the five supervisorial districts in Merced County. My district starts from the north, with Livingston, and then south Merced (from 15th street, south), then Planada, Le Grand and El Nido. So it’s a pretty wide range, from Le Grand to Livingston. It takes about 30 or 40 minutes by car. It’s pretty spread out.
My district, I think, has the highest percentage of Hispanics. From what I know, it’s 70 to 72 percent. But I have a big Hmong community too. Every community in the district is a little bit different.
I’m getting a lot of support, but not everybody knew me [at first]. It’s a lot of work when you decide to go from a small community and run for a big district. Today we have about 55,000 people per county district.
The Times: When did you start to realize that Merced County was going to face a significant impact from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Espinoza: Well it was the shutdown. The shutdown happened in the middle of March. My daughter was involved in athletics at Livingston High School. We all were hearing about this covid. I didn’t believe it [at first]. I didn’t think it was that serious. And then I started to hear about people getting sick, and maybe passing away. So obviously we [Board of Supervisors] had updates with our health director at the board meetings. The numbers started going up. … Through the first shutdown and the summer, we had more people getting sick. My brother got the virus in July, and both my parents in August.
It was like whoa. When it hits you — friends and family start getting it — it’s like wow, this is very serious.
I kept telling people, ‘Hey, wear your mask, and sanitize.’ My wife too. ‘She would say every time you go out make sure you wear a mask. You know, we have kids. I’m the one who did most of the shopping while she stayed home with the kids.
And you know it also affects your stress levels. It hits people differently. You are stressed out more. Your immune system is affected as well. Plus, if you have health issues, it can affect you more.
The Times: What about the residents in Livingston? How were they reacting to the pandemic?
Espinoza: We have a big employer in Livingston. And covid started to affect a lot of people there. We had deaths there from COVID-19. …
Foster Farms is the biggest employer in the county. They have more than 3,500 employees [3,844 to be more exact], and about half are from Livingston. And the rest live all around the county. It’s a major impact.
We started hearing about employees pushing Foster Farms to test, and the county to test. We all started getting emails. Myself and my colleagues. We of course had to deal with our Health Department, the state and the CDC. This was considered an essential business. There were a lot of negotiations on how to implement testing. I was privy to some. Some I wasn’t. …
Also, there were employees who wanted to shut down Foster Farms. … How are you going to shut down a major food processing plant and cut the jobs of thousands of employees?
Finally they agreed to shut down for seven days and test employees three times before they went back to work.
The Times: What were the challenges facing county government that were unique to this area, and perhaps not shared by other communities across the state and nation that were also facing the same deadly pandemic?
Espinoza: We have the fewest percentage of medical care facilities [and professionals] in the Central Valley. You can’t compare us to Sacramento County that is home to the state capital. … We have one hospital in Merced and one in Los Banos. The other ones are federally authorized health care clinics, but they don’t offer full medical services.
With regard to testing, it was easier for the larger counties to receive support to set up testing facilities. And now with the vaccines as well. We received the second lowest vaccine allocation in the the whole state [during the initial rollouts]. They weren’t being fair.
Recently the vaccines increased 87 percent, and we will be able to get more of our ag workers, and teachers, and factory workers vaccinated. We needed this to happen as soon as possible because our kids need to be back in school.
The Times: Why do you think the governor visited the Fresno and Madera areas in February to highlight new initiatives to bolster COVID-19 vaccination in the Central Valley’s hardest-hit or most at-risk communities?
Espinoza: Well I think it’s partly because we got together with all the supervisors in all the counties in the valley, and we started writing to make our voices heard with the governor. He also had to see for himself. This was a disaster. We have more fatalities here. It’s affecting more people here. Take for example Pasadena, a city of 150,000. They were getting 20,000 vaccines, when we [Merced County, pop. 280,000] were getting less than 10,000. That’s ridiculous.
The Times: Your colleagues decried the way state health authorities have conducted themselves with regard to COVID-19-related formulas, restrictions, and overall communication. Do you share their views?
Espinoza: It’s the same. We agree that’s in been frustrating, being a smaller, rural county at this time. Higher population areas have more representation in the state. They can have more pull in the state. But that’s not fair. We feed the country and the world with our agricultural output.
The Times: During the initial rollout, were you getting a lot of calls about vaccines from constituents?
Espinoza: Every day. Many were asking ‘Where can I go?’ … We would have a mass vaccination clinic on a Saturday and the appointments would fill up right away. We had a clinic in Planada with about 350 to 400 doses, and there were still 50 to 70 people additional people on the waiting list for appointments, and not everybody got their vaccine.
The Times: How old are you?
Espinoza: I will be 53 in April.
The Times: How did you end up with the virus, and what happened?
Espinoza: In January, I received a visit from a family member, and I got the virus, shortly after the holidays. I ended up going to the hospital. I felt symptoms on the third of January. On the fourth, we had our first regular board meeting of the year, but I couldn’t go because I felt sick. On the sixth, the pressure on my chest — I thought it was my high blood pressure, because I have that — it just kept getting worse and worse. So I told my wife, ‘Just take me to the hospital.’
We ended up going to Memorial Hospital in Modesto and staff and everybody was great. I ended up passing out when I sat down for them to take my vitals. I started feeling dizzy. The whole room went around. And the nurse told me I had passed out. I had a lack of oxygen.
I was hospitalized for seven days. I had to take a five-day dose of Remdesivir. It was very stressful for me because I am used to going everywhere, going up and down the county, trying to help as many people that I can. And I felt desperation because I didn’t want to be tied down in one location, one small room.
There was another gentlemen in the room next to me. And I saw him watching TV for 24 hours. I told myself, ‘You know what, you have to calm down, relax and just go through the motions. Watch TV. And just break down your time. I started to relax and told myself this would pass. You know, you don’t want to go crazy. And eventually, little by little, it got better. On the third day I took off the oxygen on my nose, and I started to feel better. …
You always hear that some people get better, and then all of a sudden, they get a heart attack. And that’s it. … You always have that mentality that something could happen.
The Times: If you had the opportunity to have a one-on-one with the governor of California, what would you tell him?
Espinoza: I don’t know what type of formula they are using, but the governor has an obligation to go up and down the valley, and all over the state, to really get the input from every county. I know we are all busy representing our districts, and he is busy representing the whole state. And, you know, obviously a lot of people are upset with him. You know, the recall effort is out there. … In order to do a better job, I think you have to go throughout your whole district, or the whole state, and get the viewpoints and see what you can do. We all want equality. Just like I want equality here within Merced County, everybody in the state wants equality. An equal share.