It’s still unclear how well government officials are doing in getting vaccines to hardest hit areas.
In the meantime, it’s been the community clinics that have bridged the gap.
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Yet now many clinical workers now worry whether they — and the poor neighborhoods they serve — are slated to get left behind, yet again.
Last week, state officials said they would double up on vaccines to the Golden State’s hardest hit neighborhoods by reserving 40% of new allocations to the 400 hardest hit, poorest zip codes.
The announcement comes after local health clinics, community leaders and statewide health advocacy groups have been pressing state officials to get more detailed data on where the shots are going in an effort to better target distribution.
And it comes as some clinic leaders and community organizations are calling on state and federal officials to direct money to the health clinics because many are burning through their resources vaccinating as many people as possible.
The most impacted communities are often working class residents who live in overcrowded housing and don’t have the option to work from home, which has been fueling outbreaks — particularly in Latino communities.
“So the lowest quartile, the quartile which we’re focused on … we will share a map of where those zip codes are so people understand where exactly the state is focusing,” said Secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, at a Thursday media briefing.
Ghaly was referencing the state’s health places index, which is a map displaying the most underserved areas around the state — the dark blue indicates the hardest hit areas.
Ellen Ahn, director of the Buena Park-based Korean Community Resources health clinic, said state officials should have brought in all the local clinics much earlier to begin vaccinating the most vulnerable people.
“We’re confounded. We just don’t understand it. Why is it this hard to vaccinate when we are the logical choice. Why is it this hard? No one’s actually funding us,” Ahn said in a Friday phone interview. “We’re the go-to place for low income folks. COVID-19 is no different and all of us are raising our hands saying we want to do it.”
She said the clinics are naturally located in the hardest-hit communities.
“I chuckled — I was in a meeting recently where I saw that map,” Ahn said. “Our two sites are located smack in those high-need zip codes and of course they would be. The federal government only allowed me to open up clinics to those neighborhoods.”
Locally, Orange County officials have put together a vaccine distribution map for OC.
That map shows people 65 and older in many South County were vaccinated at much higher rates than people in North and Central Orange County.
But it doesn’t paint the whole picture because the state officials are lagging on producing localized vaccination data for people who’ve been vaccinated at hospitals and pharmacies.
Ghaly indicated they were working on localizing data, but he didn’t give specifics when asked questions by Voice of OC.
OC’s current map mostly represents vaccines that have been distributed through the registration service, called Othena.
“A large group of these elders are being vaccinated by a system that isn’t Othena. They are being vaccinated by pharmacies and hospitals,” said America Bracho, executive director of the Santa Ana-based Latino Health Access.
She also said community clinics need to produce reports.
“So it’s not going to give you the true picture because many of our elders are getting the vaccines in the community clinics. So what we need is a report from the community clinics,” Bracho said in a Thursday phone interview.
Dr. Curtis Condon, research director at the county Health Care Agency, said state vaccine software doesn’t report zip codes.
“The State’s master vaccination tracking system (CAIR2 – California Immunization Registry) does not report city or ZIP code of residence for people receiving a covid vaccine. CDPH (California Department of Public Health) relays that they are working on adding this information soon,” Condon wrote in a Friday email.
While community health leaders are pushing the state for more localized vaccination data, local health clinics have been increasingly vaccinating OC’s most vulnerable residents.
“We are actively vaccinating around 500 to 600 a day in combination of first and second dose,” said Alexander Rossel, CEO of the Tustin-based Families Together of Orange County, a community health clinic.
But, like many other community clinic leaders, Rossel said he’s worried about Blue Shield’s takeover of the state vaccine distribution system.
The clinics are supposed to have contracts with the insurance giant.
But nobody’s seen one yet.
“Community clinics need to continue to vaccinate and Blue Shield has to reach out to us. If they don’t, we’re just going to go three steps back. It took us a while to go with the county and get vaccines on a regular basis,” Rossel said in a Friday phone interview.
Ahn said she’s also worried about Blue Shield’s take over.
“Everything that Alex mentioned, I completely ditto. It keeps me up at night on how all this is going to play out. None of us have a contract yet from Blue Shield and we are dying for that contract,” Ahn said. “We are now known as a vaccine provider in our communities and it would be devastating to have the vaccine supply cut off.”
She said the Korean Community Services is vaccinating at least 350 people a week, spread out through three separate days.
The Families Together clinic held a mobile vaccinate clinic Saturday at Savannah High School in West Anaheim, where volunteers vaccinated more than 350 people — including food workers.
Another mobile vaccination site was held the same day at Villa Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana by the Share Our Selves community clinic.
Volunteers there vaccinated more than 300 people.
“There has been pent up vaccine demand,” said Jay Lee, chief health officer of Share Our Selves clinic.
He said the numerous volunteers — from physicians and registered nurses to medical assistants and medical students — were instrumental in helping keep the process steady from check-in to vaccination.
“We’ve been blessed with quite a few volunteers,” Lee said in a Saturday interview. “This is starting a movement to target the hardest hit communities.”
Meanwhile, hospitalizations continue declining.
As of Friday, 288 people were hospitalized, including 84 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
That’s the lowest hospitalizations have been since mid-November, when new cases began rapidly rising and people were increasingly going to emergency rooms.
But deaths continue rolling in.
The virus has now killed 4,252 people, including 26 newly reported deaths Friday.
That’s more than seven times the number of people the flu kills in OC 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.
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