While state and local public health officials keep calling for vaccine equity, much of the effort in Orange County is focused on massive vaccination supersites — areas not available to many residents who juggle multiple jobs, the elderly and disabled people.
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To balance that out, some community organizations and doctors keep pushing county officials to set up smaller vaccination clinics.
Dr. Maryam Gul, a rheumatologist in Central Anaheim, has been trying for weeks to get 500 doses to administer to her patients.
“I have a huge population of low socioeconomic status, undocumented status patients,” Gul said in a Monday phone interview. “These people are working on an hourly basis and by the time they’re done with work, many of the centers are closed or they’re still working. You can’t expect them to be on the phone for hours to get an appointment.”
As of last Thursday, 11% of the roughly 288,000 vaccines have gone to the Latino community, who make up about 35% of OC’s residents, according to a county vaccine tracker.
Yet Latinos have roughly 44% of all virus cases and over 37% of the nearly 3,400 virus deaths.
“So when you look at these numbers and you look at the vaccinations, it really baffles my mind. How does the population suffering the most not even have access to the vaccine?” Gul said.
State and local health officials blame the many disparities on limited supplies.
Yet nearby counties, like San Diego, are vaccinating at twice the pace of Orange County and reaching many more Latinos as well.
Some local doctors, like Gul, question why limited stockpiles aren’t going to the hardest hit communities first.
Hector Bustos, spokesman for the Santa Ana-based community organization Chispa, said health equity should matter more to county officials.
“This has become a question around equity. We’re really glad about the supersite created in Anaheim, but there are concerns that it’s a little difficult to get there,” Bustos said in a Monday phone interview.
He said Santa Ana needs a vaccination super site because many residents aren’t able to travel to Disneyland or Soka University.
“Right now what we’re pushing for is a site similar to those that were designated in Anaheim and Aliso Viejo and the reason being is Santa Ana has been the most impacted city by COVID and we’ve seen so many deaths in our community already,” Bustos said.
Latino neighborhoods in Santa Ana and Anaheim have been pummeled by the virus because many residents live in overcrowded housing and don’t have the option of working from home. Many also struggle with access to health care.
While Chispa and Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento are pushing for a larger vaccination site in the city, some smaller sites are expected to be hosted by Latino Health Access some time this week.
Gul is trying to do a similar small site, but keeps running into roadblocks.
She submitted a request to state officials for 500 vaccines Jan. 15 and had to verify her clinic has the required equipment, like an ultra cold freezer.
Gul and a handful of other doctors in the area made up a list of over 50 volunteers to help with the vaccinations, she said.
“We have a whole game plan on how to do this and we have the means to administer,” Gul said. “We’re ready to go, we’re just waiting for the vaccine.”
But she’s been getting radio silence from officials.
Gul said she messaged county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau about the issue during a Friday Zoom meeting aimed at increasing efforts to vaccinate the Latino community.
She said Chau is expected to hold a Zoom call this week with her about the issue.
In an email Gul shared with Voice of OC, county Health Care Agency officials told her the state put vaccine allocations to new distributors on hold.
“The State has awarded Blue Shield and Kaiser as the 3rd party to implement a statewide network for vaccine distribution, affecting Orange County allocation. The State asked all counties to hold off on allocating vaccines to new providers and limit allocation to existing providers,” the Friday email said.
It’s unclear how the third party system is going to work.
At his Monday news conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom offered very few details about partnering with Kaiser and Blue Shield.
Meanwhile, San Diego County is vaccinating many more people than OC.
Yet the two counties have a similar amount of residents — roughly 3.2 million people.
As of Sunday, roughly 466,000 people have been vaccinated in San Diego County — nearly 200,000 more than OC.
But about 16% of the vaccinations have gone to San Diego County’s Latino community.
At Newsom’s news conference, San Diego Board of Supervisors Chairman Nathan Fletcher said roughly 30% of the county’s population is Latino and there’s more than a dozen neighborhood vaccination sites targeting the hardest hit areas.
“Efforts are underway for our promotoras, our community health workers … with a particular focus on our Latino community,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher also said officials expect to open up a fifth super site.
OC only has big vaccination sites at Disneyland and Soka University.
While community groups and organizations continue to press OC officials to vaccinate more residents in the hardest hit neighborhoods, hospitalizations continue to drop.
As of Monday, 1,046 people were hospitalized, including 331 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
Deaths continue to increase.
The virus has now killed 3,383 people, including 25 new deaths reported today.
Newly reported deaths can stretch back weeks due to reporting delays.
The virus has already killed more than five times the flu does on a yearly average.
It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do 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 23,883 people dead as of December, 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.
While deaths continue to roll in, Santa Ana officials have repeatedly said they’re ready for vaccination sites.
“Our council’s been so proactive. We set aside funding, we’ve already secured sites, we have personnel and staffing and experience from delivering more than 35,000 tests during last year, are fully equipped and want to help them with some of their super pods. I don’t know how much more compelling an argument we can make,” Sarmiento said at last Tuesday’s Santa Ana City Council meeting.
City Manager Kristine Ridge said city officials regularly talk with the county Health Care Agency about the issue.
“We continue to have weekly calls with the county. We are more than willing to collaborate in partnership with them on trying to bring additional vaccination sites to our city,” Ridge said.
She said there was one pilot vaccination program last month, but county officials haven’t said if it will come back.
“We vaccinated almost 500 of our senior citizens, mainly those that participated in the assistance programs offered out of that senior center. There is a follow-up schedule so that we can do the second dose of the vaccinations for them, but at this time we don’t have any other commitment for the county.”
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