In the Spotlight

In the Spotlight: Regina Chinsio-Kwong, DO

Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, Deputy Health Officer at OC Health Care Agency

Known familiarly as Dr. CK, Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong holds a doctor of osteopathy degree from Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona. She currently serves as deputy health officer at OC Health Care Agency.

In a podcast supplement to this interview, Dr. CK shared more about her career path and sense of mission for pandemic communications. “We have a role in standing our ground (against misinformation) and making sure that we can give the right recommendations to the community,” she said in the podcast. 

Click here to listen to the 17-minute recording.

Since joining OCHCA a year ago, she’s played a leading role communicating science-based information on the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the latest information on vaccines, boosters, community transmission and precautionary advice. 

Dr. CK has a varied background, having served (like her father) in the U.S. Navy and completed residency training in family medicine at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton. She went on to work with Providence Southern California at several Orange County locations. 

Dr. CK maintains a personal and professional interest in integrative medicine — an approach that melds Western and Asian approaches and seeks causes along with effective treatments. She is an experienced acupuncture practitioner.  

This interview is part of In the Spotlight — a HASC series profiling people connected to the association pursuing innovative, impactful work in their communities. 

Let’s get right to the main question, which is especially critical to area hospitals and their planners: what is the winter surge outlook and how severe might the situation become? 

If area residents are not vigilant, there is a possibility of experiencing a “twindemic” — with a COVID surge as well as a rise of flu cases which would place an enormous strain on the hospital system. The severity of a surge will depend on how everyone goes about their lives in the next 1.5 months. If we continue with minimal change in vaccination rates and minimal change in our current habits of conducting business, socializing, and gathering (i.e. not being mindful about wearing mask indoors, continuing with small and large gatherings that include unvaccinated individuals), we can potentially see a surge of COVID cases as high as what we saw last January. On the other hand, predictive modeling (via CDPH’s California COVID Assessment Tool, or CalCAT) shows that if vaccination rates and booster uptake outweighs waning immunity, we have a chance of not experiencing a surge Jan-March 2022. 

Now the Omicron variant has thrown another unknown into the equation. What’s your take — and how can hospitals help survey the presence of variants?

Omicron has a toehold here and elsewhere, of course, but there’s still much to learn about this variant of concern. While the mutations are concerning for increased transmission and immune escape, we need real-life data to prove this. It is too early to tell if this variant causes increased severe illness or hospitalizations. Unfortunately, we will have to learn through the lived experience of other countries that have detected Omicron cases to understand how it may affect our community. 

OCHCA is appreciative of all the work the hospitals have done to assist us with COVID-19 surveillance, which will also help us monitor for potential novel variants. It is imperative that hospitals continue to report COVID admission data daily to OCHCA so we can have a better understanding of the community disease burden. Hospital laboratories will need to also continue to submit PCR positive specimens to the OCHCA lab so we can perform whole-genome sequencing to get a more accurate picture of the variants prevalent in Orange County. 

We have come a long way with vaccines and newer therapeutics to fight COVID compared to 2020. Unfortunately, hospitals will need to prepare for a difficult winter — this includes reducing transmission of COVID and flu as best they can among staff, visitors and patients.

This also includes updating surge plans to minimize diversion hours and ambulance patient offload times to avoid suspending elective procedures in the face of staff shortages, rising flu cases, and a possible increase in COVID cases.

You said in a recent news item that you’d be “first in line” getting your own younger child vaccinated. How did it go? Why should we worry about our young people carrying the virus when they rarely suffer severe effects? 

My son was able to get vaccinated days immediately following the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), and received his second dose recently. He did well with both doses and only experienced minor discomfort with the initial prick of the needle. He reported no symptoms otherwise! Pharmacists and clinicians who are administering vaccines are similarly reporting that children are tolerating this vaccine very well with minimal side effects. 

Having a COVID vaccine that’s authorized for those ages 5-11 is having a positive impact on families. Some vaccination sites have also stated that they see more families getting the vaccine together. It can go one of two ways — either parents want to show their children that getting the shot isn’t painful, and they prove it by doing it at the same time. And vice-versa, some children are showing their parents and adult family members that getting the vaccine is easy and is not painful! 

You served as a clinician with Providence before joining Orange County’s public health team in 2020. What would you tell hospital managers given the lessons you’ve learned in your new role? 

I think there are a lot of lessons learned — primarily, we are better working together! If anything, COVID has motivated us all to work more with data and dashboards for improved awareness regarding resources and capacity. Hopefully, the enhanced coordination, communication and data dashboards developed during this period will benefit our county and help us to respond cohesively to challenges of the current pandemic, as well as future disasters or emergencies. 

We realize that burnout has been significant, and that staffing retention remains a challenge. I encourage all hospitals to continue to work with their local health jurisdiction, local hospital coalitions and medical groups for further planning and support.

What have you learned about ways to effectively communicate with all residents in the polarized and often misinformed climate we inhabit?  

Communicating the importance of both vaccinations and following non-pharmacologic interventions with someone who is deeply committed to the information they have been following is difficult and will take time, compassion and a lot of patience. I have learned that people are heavily influenced by friends, family, social groups and social media. Some may have distrust in government or the medical community because of prior experiences — or they may have felt dismissed or marginalized for their stance — leading them to surround themselves with others who continue to validate or promote their beliefs.  

Effective communication requires active listening and dialogue. Sometimes, resistance or hesitancy really comes from a deeply rooted fear or concern that has not been acknowledged or adequately addressed. We are human, and sometimes the scientific data is not what is needed. Instead, it is compassion and empathy. With some individuals, gaining trust occurs when they feel their concerns and fears are acknowledged and that their best interest and health are kept in mind. This is also why we hope that individuals who have questions are speaking with the medical professionals they trust. 

From the public health perspective, effective communication with this group requires consistent, clear messages from reputable health professionals provided by local hospitals, medical practices, and health systems, as well as local community leaders. OCHCA created a local vaccine task force with local leaders in 2020 (including local leaders from faith-based organizations, businesses, hospitals, health systems, Department of Education, local medical associations — Orange County Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics – OC Chapter, community-based organizations) to assist in getting the message out. We want the public to be informed by the leaders and health professionals who care for them within their own communities.

Listen to the podcast here.