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Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento said it’s time to take county, state and federal officials to task for what he considers a failure to increase coronavirus vaccinations in the city.
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“We have to take inventory of who stepped up and helped our city and residents, because those 700-plus deaths (in Santa Ana), those families, those are people we know. We should be very, very angry,” Sarmiento said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “There’s direct responsibility for people who said nothing and did nothing.”
He said the lack of vaccine, coupled with the high infection rates and deaths, fuel stereotypes about the city.
“So this feeds into the stereotype that people of color, low income people — literally the people of Santa Ana, who are the most impacted, are the most abandoned in this effort. I’m not talking just about the county, I’m talking about the federal and state relief efforts as well,” Sarmiento said.
Two vaccine supersites have opened in Anaheim — also a hard hit city — and another opened in Aliso Viejo.
Sarmiento’s comments come after the Coalition of Community Health Centers of Orange County, school district officials and community organizations, like Latino Health Access, have been fighting for weeks to increase vaccination efforts to the county’s hardest hit neighborhoods.
During Tuesday’s council meeting, Santa Ana City Manager Kristine Ridge showed a map of where vaccines for people 65 and older have gone.
Most of the inoculations have gone to South County residents, according to the map.
“I don’t know what adjectives to use. I’m pretty alarmed that there are vaccination sites and vaccines coming to the county, but very little has come to Santa Ana and I think it’s so upsetting. I don’t understand the logic,” Sarmiento said at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “I think if anything the logic should have been let’s take the vaccine where the conditions are the worst.”
Targeted vaccinations in hard hit areas is a strategy echoed by numerous epidemiologists, doctors and health advocates interviewed by Voice of OC over the past few months.
Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Community Health Centers of Orange County, said the community clinics are beginning to run into vaccine hesitancy in some of the hardest hit areas.
“I think we’re probably finding some vaccine hesitancy. So we need to increase outreach and education,” Becerra said in a Wednesday phone interview.
While they work on outreach, Becerra said it’s time for the smaller, county-run clinics to start vaccinating frontline workers like teachers, food service employees, agriculture workers and child care employees.
“If we want to maintain the level of volume we need to get to herd immunity, we need to expand vaccines to essential workers,” she said.
America Bracho, executive director of Latino Health Access, echoed similar concerns and also said county-run community clinics should reserve a percentage of vaccines for frontline workers.
“We are waiting to see how Disneyland and Soka and Santa Ana college are going to handle the food workers. Because we are desperate to get the food workers vaccinated,” she said in a Wednesday phone interview.
In the meantime, Bracho said Latino Health Access is meeting with agricultural workers to address vaccine hesitancy.
The outreach started Tuesday with agriculture workers around Irvine, she said.
“We were able to have a session with 160 agricultural workers. Many of them, we were told, didn’t want to go to the session,” Bracho said.
The outreach efforts worked, she said.
“At the end of the session the vast majority said they really want the vaccine,” Bracho said. “So that gets us very motivated because we know that true information opens the minds of people.”
Meanwhile, concerns are starting to be eased surrounding Blue Shield’s takeover of the statewide vaccine distribution system.
The health insurance giant was supposed to take over by the end of the week, but that has been delayed following a series of miscommunications between counties across the state and Blue Shield.
In a Tuesday news briefing, county Health Care Agency Director and health officer, Dr. Clayton Chau, said he doesn’t expect big changes from the distribution switch.
“I had a first conversation with the Blue Shield team last Thursday and it went very well. I described to the Blue Shield team how we’re distributing vaccines here in Orange County,” Chau told reporters.
According to the $15 million contract with the state Government Operations Agency, Blue Shield is expected to identify and contract with vaccine providers before distributing any shots.
Becerra said some of the concerns from community clinics have been addressed after finally meeting with a Blue Shield representative.
She gave the representative two lists of community clinics looking to keep vaccinating people.
“One is the list of community health centers who are vaccinating today, in partnership with the Health Care Agency — I want to make sure those are prioritized because I don’t want to interrupt the flow that we have now,” Becerra said.
“The second list I gave him is the remaining list of community health centers who are vaccinating in their sites, but to a lesser volume or lesser degree than those I’m calling the hubs. The hubs are producing 200 to 600 vaccinations a day,” she said.
While Health Care Agency officials, local health clinics and community organizations navigate the complexities of the vaccine rollout, coronavirus hospitalizations slightly decreased.
As of Wednesday, 403 people were hospitalized, including 107 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
That’s the lowest hospitalizations have been in over three months, shortly before Orange County saw massive increases in hospitalizations starting around Thanksgiving.
The virus has now killed 3,966 people — more than seven times the flu does on a yearly average.
Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively.
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 unclear when Blue Shield will take over vaccine distribution in Orange County.
And despite what state officials said last week, Chau said the county might be able to continue using its vaccine registration website and app — known as Othena — instead of the state’s registration system, MyTurn.
But that depends on if the two programs can speak to each other.
“They told us that as long as we can work out an interface with MyTurn, then the county will be able to use Othena,” Chau said at the Tuesday news conference. “It looks like we will be able to create an interface and everything should be good.”
While some of the community clinic concerns have been addressed by Blue Shield representatives, Becerra said they need to keep up pressure so no clinics get left behind.
“I’m optimistic about it, but I don’t wan’t want to let up on the advocacy,” Becerra said. “We are strategically located in the neighborhoods that have been hardest hit. I don’t want to let go of that pressure to contract with us until we actually see those contracts get signed.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio