Like a lot of filmmakers, La Jolla resident Adam Raby’s film projects in 2020 were put on hold. But on Dec. 31, Empowering a Billion Women (EBW, ebw2020.com) connected with Raby for an opportunity to film ground zero in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic — El Centro, California.
EBW is an organization made up of a global network of women leaders who advocate for women’s health and prosperity. Raby was activated as part of the EBW network to aid in a public information campaign in El Centro, informing residents about the availability of monoclonal antibody treatments (MABs).
“When President Trump got diagnosed with COVID-19, they took him to Walter Reed in a helicopter and as soon as he landed they gave him this treatment,” Raby said. “It was only available to certain people at that point, it wasn’t available to anybody, really. Now the government wants to use this as a vehicle to lower the hospital rates in because hospitals are overwhelmed. In El Centro, they got parking lots full of tents with people in them and they’re just trying to find a way to help this community.”
The MAB program that EBW, Raby and his partner Jose Valdez filmed was started by Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), Dr. Robert Kadlec and is carried out by HHS and the El Centro Regional Medical Center, a UCSD hospital. The team’s role was to inform the public about the program, help alleviate fears and fight misinformation about the new treatment.
Women make 80% of health care decisions in the United States, according to Department of Labor statistics, so gaining the trust of women was critical in galvanizing support for the MAB program.
“There is a lot of messaging out there that has made this virus and this pandemic even more tragic,” Raby said. “Using EBW to engage the women in this community and say ‘We have something that will help you, don’t be afraid to go get a test, don’t be afraid to go to the hospital, there are resources there that will help you,’ was an important part of this.”
Raby recalled one woman his team interviewed named Laura, a general manager at electrical cooperative, who shared that one of her employees called into work because she was not feeling well. Laura encouraged her to get tested.
“She also told her, because now she was aware of this, that she should ask her doctor if she meets the requirements for monoclonal antibody treatment. Two hours later she was getting the monoclonal antibody. So that’s the power of sharing the story.”
Another success story was the El Centro fire chief, Cedric Cesena, who had severe symptoms from COVID.
“Within 48 hours after the monoclonal treatment, I was at 80% back to normal,” Cesena said. “My wife’s life was also saved by the infusion. She’s got bronchitis and developed pneumonia, and without the infusion, she probably would’ve died.”
The MAB program in El Centro utilizes infusion centers where patients at high risk of severe reaction to COVID are treated within 72 hours of symptoms or after receiving a positive test. The MAB drugs, like the COVID vaccines that are now available, are already purchased by the government and are given to qualified patients at no cost.
The program has been so far successful. Of the first 133 patients treated with the infusion, only six later required treatment in an ICU, said El Centro Regional Medical Center CEO Dr. Adolphe Edward. Edward estimates that one ICU bed is freed up for every 10 patients treated with a MAB infusion. Pre-COVID, the El Centro Regional Medical Center had only 12 ICU beds, but has now expanded to over 60 in the hospital and even in outside tents.
As Raby, Valdez and EBW founder Ingrid Vanderveldt interviewed local community leaders, healthcare professionals and citizens who shared their stories about the successes of the infusion centers, their backdrop was often the COVID-positive tents where the filmmakers witnessed the around-the-clock battle healthcare workers were engaged in trying to save lives.
“It felt like we were in a war zone,” Raby said. “People weren’t shooting at us but there was the effect of the bodies that were lined up outside the hospital ward because they had nowhere to put the deceased. We had that view. And it was powerful. It was disheartening. It was tragic.”
After the team finished filming in El Centro, they realized they had documented more than just a government program.
“The emotions of what I experienced over the last six days hit me and tears just started pouring down my face,” he said. “Because what we were witnessing wasn’t just something about COVID-19, it was about a community. It was about people. It was about the history of the land.
“This was once a desert and because of water, it has turned into the fruit and vegetable basket of our country in the winter months. Along with that comes people who’ve been affected by this pandemic more than most places in the county. I think their positive rate was at 37%.”
The high rate of infection comes from a variety of factors in El Centro, where a sizable portion of the population are migrant workers exposed to environmental pollutants like pesticides and many families live in multi-generational households with little to no ability to quarantine at home.
“These people have been affected for a long period of time and their health is at risk. COVID-19 picks on people who have those kinds of health issues and it doesn’t allow them up,” Raby said. “And now, hopefully, the people that were there — HHS, certainly EBW, as well as the Department of Defense that is doing this Operation Warp Speed — they will see this community needs the help. And if we can help this community, we can take this program and help the entire country.”
The immediate plan for the film captured in El Centro is to use the images in the campaign EBW is launching on billboards, flyers to hang on doors in English and Spanish, social media and short-form, podcast-type interviews to educate community members about the MAB program.
EBW and Raby hope the next phase is to tell this story in a documentary form, possibly a series.
That documentary or series, the team imagines, would not only show the devastation of the pandemic in one of America’s hardest-hit cities, but also the hope that comes out of people helping people.
“If we come together and put aside some of those differences, put aside those ideas and thoughts the messaging, put that aside and help each other, maybe this is an opportunity to move forward and make some changes in our community where we all help each other — even outside of healthcare.”
“For the first time in history, we’re all focusing on the same issue,” Valdez added. “We’re all focusing on COVID-19 and that’s the comradery of what can bring us together as a society, so hopefully this can be an opportunity.”