Many of Orange County’s hardest hit Latino residents haven’t been able to get the coronavirus vaccine following a series of glitches, outages and language barriers in the county’s vaccine registration program.
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Latinos, while making up roughly 35% of OC’s residents, account for 44% of all virus cases and 38% of the nearly 3,000 people killed by the virus.
Yet only 11% of the roughly 178,000 vaccinations have gone to the community, according to a vaccine tracker from the county Health Care Agency, which is updated weekly.
That’s about 19,500 vaccines for Latinos.
“I think everything else we’ve seen with the inequities brought to light by COVID have compounded. This is now affecting everybody. Now, I worry about a state of inequity and a condition of rationing. Those that already have service access will benefit the most. It doesn’t make them bad people or selfish,” Anaheim City Council member Jose Moreno said in a Thursday phone interview.
He said it’s up to local leaders to address the inequities.
“I count on our local government to create an equitable playing field,” Moreno said.
Anaheim and Santa Ana — home to large Latino communities — have nearly 35% OC’s roughly quarter million virus cases and nearly 37% of all deaths.
Yet the two cities make up just over a fifth of OC’s 3.2 million residents.
“My initial thought is that the efforts so far have been disappointing. We obviously realized who has been disproportionately affected by the virus are the ones being vaccinated at a very low and dismal rate,” Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento said in a Friday phone interview.
Both Moreno and Sarmiento said the county should be using nonprofit community health groups, like Santa Ana-based Latino Health Access, who brought testing and isolation resources to the hardest hit neighborhoods in the two cities that eventually drove positivity rates down.
“We delivered close to 35,000 tests using mobile sites, reaching people in their own neighborhoods. We did it effectively. We certainly stand ready to partner with the county to deliver vaccines to these hard to reach communities,” Sarmiento said.
Moreno said county officials should’ve learned from the testing disparities last year.
“It’s distressing that we haven’t learned from those lessons. While I think it was great to to the supersite as Disneyland, simultaneously we need to do neighborhood clinics right away. Because we know the hardest hit community, for various factors, those superpods aren’t feasible,” he said.
Orange County’s vaccination registration service, called Othena, has been plagued by glitches, outages and some erroneous registrations.
It’s also only in English, despite the $1.2 million contract calling for Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean translations.
Click here to read the contract.
“I just hope that these for-profit industries of testing, of vaccinations, distributors of software, aren’t simply profiting off the misery of people and not delivering on the promise of their contracts,” Moreno said.
OC health officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, at Tuesday’s meeting publicly told county Supervisors language translations would be coming this week.
That estimate lasted a day.
During an abruptly scheduled Wednesday news conference, Dr. Margaret Bredehoft, Deputy OC Health Care Agency Director of Public Health Services said they expect Spanish and Vietnamese sometime next week.
Bredehoft and Chau have blamed Othena’s problems on vaccine demand outpacing supply.
Sarmiento said they were able to vaccinate roughly 500 vulnerable people at a senior center a couple weeks ago, which shows there’s alternatives to Othena and the supersites.
“That was done really well because the city helped staff the effort, along with the county. That was a pilot effort, but it demonstrated how partnering with cities that understand their communities better can more effectively deliver these vaccines to those who need them the most — like seniors or those who are monolingual Spanish and Vietnamese speakers,” he said.
Chau has hinted mobile vaccination clinics, like Santa Ana’s senior center, are coming soon.
But no timeline on those efforts have been given.
“I’m not trying to be critical of the county, I just want to advise them that Santa Ana is ready to partner with them to better serve these hard to reach communities like Latinos and seniors,” Sarmiento said.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert Sanghyuk Shin said community health care workers, like Latino Health Access’ promotores, have already done a great job addressing the many inequities during the pandemic like lack of testing and quarantine resources.
“Promotores in in the Latino communities and community health centers have really been amazing in what they’ve been able to do. I think that model should definitely be considered for vaccination campaigns and other public health measures as well. And I think, right now, we know what works,” Shin said in a Thursday interview.
He said the community health approach has proven itself among researchers.
“That model has been evaluated scientifically in a number of settings and has been shown to be extremely effective and cost effective. I think it takes political will to make sure this highly effective models are scaled up,” Shin said.
Meanwhile, hospitalizations have been declining.
As of Friday, 1,521 people are hospitalized.
But deaths are skyrocketing.
The county Health Care Agency reported 107 new deaths Friday, the highest daily increase reported, so far.
Newly reported deaths can stretch back weeks due to reporting delays.
Since January began, 1,102 deaths have been reported.
The virus has now killed 2,975 people out of 229,757 confirmed cases.
It’s already killed five times as many people as the flu does on a yearly average.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
Orange County has already surpassed its yearly average 20,000 deaths, with 21,110 people dead as of November, according to the latest available state data.
It’s a difficult virus for the medical community to tackle because some people don’t show any symptoms, yet can still spread it. Others feel slight symptoms, like fatigue and a mild fever.
Others end up in ICUs for days and weeks before making it out, while other people eventually die from the virus.
Moreno said it’s inexcusable county officials weren’t ready to roll the vaccine out to the most vulnerable.
“It’s beginning to get tired — the rationale that well we’ve never seen this before,” he said. “So we’ve been doing this for a year. Again, for me it’s no longer excusable, to say that well we were overwhelmed by the number of people needing a vaccine.”
For more details on the COVID-19 vaccine in Orange County view our Voice of OC information page: http://bit.ly/occovidvaccine.
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio