A coalition of Orange County nonprofit health clinics and various school districts are once again fighting to make sure vulnerable communities aren’t left behind in the coronavirus pandemic response — this time for vaccinations.
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The efforts are another chapter in the community push to address various inequities, largely reminiscent of their push last year to get zip code-level data on positivity rates so testing and other resources could be targeted to Orange County’s most impacted neighborhoods.
The group, which also includes city council members from Anaheim and Santa Ana, is largely led by Latino Health Access Executive Director, America Bracho.
Bracho and officials from school districts in the two cities are pushing county Health Care Agency officials to release zip code data on vaccinations, which should paint a picture on where vaccines are going in OC.
“I’m a firm believer that when communities are organized, then equity has a better chance. In that sense, I say I was relieved we have been having these conversations for months,” Bracho said in a Wednesday phone interview.
She had an abrupt Zoom meeting with OC health officer and county Health Care Agency Director, Dr. Clayton Chau, on Tuesday evening — days after Voice of OC reported Latinos are being left behind the vaccination efforts.
During the meeting, numerous community health organization representatives, school officials and some city council members pushed for a steady stream of vaccines from the county in an effort to set up neighborhood clinics — similar to the virus testing efforts.
Chau has previously said neighborhood vaccination clinics are being planned, but no further specifics have been given.
Orange County’s efforts to use a website and app, called Othena, for vaccine appointment registrations has faced mounting criticism since it launched three weeks ago.
It also lacks language translations, although the website is now available in Spanish.
The $1.2 million Othena contract calls for Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean translations.
Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno said the county’s vaccination efforts have left too many people behind.
“While we hear these inexplicable data glitches and other problems, somebody’s getting vaccinated,” Moreno said in a Tuesday phone interview.
“And the data clearly shows it ain’t Latinos.”
As of Monday, only 11% of the roughly 265,000 vaccinations have gone to the community, according to a vaccine tracker from the county Health Care Agency, which is updated weekly.
Latinos, while making up roughly 35% of OC’s residents, account for 44% of all virus cases and over 37% of the roughly 3,200 people killed by the virus.
OC officials have largely attributed many problems surrounding the vaccinations are due to limited stockpiles.
“The shortage is not an excuse at all. What you do with that shortage is what can create equity or inequity,” Bracho said.
Dr. Shruti Gohil, an infectious disease doctor who treats virus patients at UC Irvine medical center, said the county’s outbreaks last year came from the hardest hit areas and spread to the rest of OC.
“Back in March in Orange County, cases of COVID were clearly heaviest in the Latino community. Period. The vast majority of patients we were seeing in hospitals were from the Anaheim/Santa Ana area,” Gohil said in a Thursday phone interview.
Initial data from last March and April showed coastal areas of OC being impacted more, but Gohil said that was before testing and contact tracing efforts were bolstered in cities like Anaheim and Santa Ana.
The vaccination efforts should focus on the hardest hit areas, Gohil said.
“Now that the vaccine is here, the best chance we have at limiting spread is the same as testing, which is to vaccinate where the hardest hit communities are. Because we all know the infection marches out from there. There’s no real question there,” Gohil said in a Thursday phone interview.
It’s a vaccine strategy used around the world.
“So if you look at vaccine strategies for any part of the world for any disease, you will see they begin in places where the most risk is and then march out from there,” Gohil said.
In order to target the hardest hit places, Bracho said they first need to map out the vaccine data.
“Once you have the data, then the conversation becomes more focused. Because now this is what is happening — this is how the pandemic impacted this neighborhood and this is how many people from that neighborhood got this vaccine,” Bracho said. “If we want the essential workers of the low income communities to get vaccinated, we need to map this now.”
The community coalition’s efforts come after state and local public health officials have been pushing vaccine equity measures, but have been mostly relying on large vaccination sites like Diseyland or Soka University.
Language barriers, lack of specific vaccination data and poor community outreach are just some of the problems plaguing communities across the state.
“That is something that we’re sort of seeing up and down the state. It’s not just a micro trend, but it’s a macro trend as well,” said Joel Jenkins, senior community advocacy coordinator for the Sacramento-based California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.
In a Thursday phone interview, Jenkins said the pandemic has disproportionately hit Latino, Black and Pacific Islander communities across the state.
While the state doesn’t have specific vaccination numbers for each of the ethnic groups, Jenkins said they’ve been able to get some local data.
“Each of these groups, from what the numbers are showing right now, are not having as much access to the vaccines as folks who identify as white or non-Hispanic,” Jenkins said.
Whites received 42% of the vaccine in OC, up from 35% last year. Whites make up over 38% of OC’s population, 37% of deaths and nearly 25% of cases, according to the county’s vaccine tracker and case demographic data.
Asian and Pacific Islanders account for 28% of vaccines, down from 33% last year. They account for over 21% of OC’s population, 19% of virus deaths and over 11% of cases.
Moreno, who helped push for zip code positivity data last year, said OC’s experiences with vulnerable communities should’ve been a guide for the county’s vaccination rollout.
“We know the most vulnerable populations, particularly Latinos, did not respond well to go to supersites for testing,” Moreno said. “So what made us think that would work differently for vaccinations?”
The community coalition has also been able to roll out a handful of mobile vaccine clinics when they were able to get some doses.
Now, they’re slated to get roughly 1,500 vaccines for sites in Anaheim and Santa Ana next week, Bracho said.
“We are going to do it the same way we did the testing. There are people who are going to come from our neighborhoods in Fullerton, in Garden Grove, Buena Park, Placentia, Westminster and so on,” Bracho said.
She said a steady supply of vaccines to the neighborhood clinics throughout OC will help spread the word about the shots.
“The ongoing supply is critical to outreach. Because it’s almost like if you open a restaurant and you have to do marketing to sell 10 tacos and you close. Then you tell people I don’t know when I’m going to be open again — what kind of marketing is that? Once you open, you’re open,” Bracho said.
Gohil said state and local government officials need to pour more money into the community clinic efforts to bolster the infrastructure required to distribute the vaccines, like ultra cold freezers.
Meanwhile, OC’s hospitalizations continue to decrease.
As of Thursday, 1,238 people were hospitalized, including 365 in intensive care units.
But deaths have been steadily rolling in.
The virus has now killed 3,249 people, including 50 new deaths reported today, according to the county Health Care Agency.
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.
Gohil warned the downward trend in hospitalizations could be reversed in no time if the virus continues unchecked, coupled with a lack of targeted vaccinations.
“Make no mistake — if we still let this virus circulate, it will still resurface,” she said. “By controlling the spread of the virus, in fact, you minimize the chance of mutation and the speed of mutation. If our vaccines can outpace the development of a new mutant strain or any of the imported mutant strains, then that’s the way we can beat this pandemic.”
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