More resources should be directed at closing the persisting coronavirus vaccination gaps in Orange County’s Latino community as the expected June 15 statewide reopening edges closer, warns an increasing number of the region’s top public health experts.
“We’ve done a solid job in Orange County and in the state prioritizing communities of color, who are at the highest risk of COVID and deaths related to COVID. Those efforts — they’re real, they’re happening, but we need to put more effort into it,” said Bernadette Boden-Albala, founding dean of UC Irvine’s Public Health program.
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Boden-Albala, a public health expert and epidemiologist, said Latinos are still being vaccinated at lower rates compared to other communities — even as state and local officials have focused more vaccination efforts on the community.
A number of other health experts, like community clinic doctors, epidemiologists and community activists are all ringing similar alarm bells.
In order to close that gap, numerous community organizations, local health clinics and the Orange County Health Care Agency have been hosting neighborhood vaccination clinics for working class residents who face various hurdles getting shots at supersites like Disneyland.
“It is starting to move the needle, but it’s actually at a slower pace than the rest of the county,” Boden-Albala said in a Tuesday phone interview. “We have to make sure that we’re doing it at the same pace. And that’s something that people have a hard time understanding.”
Her colleagues have also said more focus needs be put on closing the vaccination gap.
Alexander Rossel, CEO of Families Together of Orange County said health clinics like his could use more staffing and funding from all levels of government.
“We could definitely use more resources. We have access to these communities and we’re doing what we can. So, for example, I have two mobile units [RVs with medical equipment], but I’m only able to use one for vaccines because I don’t have the staff to send out. We are booked out,” Rossel said in a Tuesday phone interview.
The Latino community has had nearly 47% of Orange County’s coronavirus cases, 38% of deaths and has received nearly 15% of the 2 million vaccines distributed, according to county Health Care Agency data.
State officials have also said they’re going to bolster the neighborhood clinics and target essential employees like farm workers by earmarking 40% of the state’s vaccine allocation for the poorest, hardest hit communities.
“We have work to do and that work is manifested at the local level. There’s no substitutes for sites like this. I know there’s a lot of focus, a lot of energy on the mass vaccination sites. But the backbone of our vaccine delivery system is communities like this, clinics like this, partnering with churches like this,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom at a news conference in a church in Alameda County last Thursday.
Locally, the OC Health Care Agency and a host of community organizations have been teaming up with churches, schools and other places to do outreach and host vaccination clinics.
The agency is averaging seven to 10 mobile vaccination clinics a week, county Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau told Voice of OC Monday.
Newsom said the state’s directing $52.7 million for community vaccination clinic efforts.
But Boden-Albala said she worries those efforts may fall short before the June 15 statewide reopening.
“The effort has been much better, much stronger — so the numbers are starting to increase. But, remember, we need it done by June 15 for us to be safe. And what I worry about is we don’t have enough effort. Is it going fast enough?” Boden-Albala said. “We have to recalibrate where we put the efforts so we really get everybody vaccinated in the next two months.”
Local health leaders have said the vaccination gap stems from a variety of factors, like language barriers, getting time off work and knowing how to navigate the digital vaccine registration platforms the supersites use. Those hurdles could be perceived as hesitancy, they said.
“There are definitely many barriers. Community clinics exist to close those barriers,” Rossel said. “Especially for Families Together, that’s our mission, like other health clinics.”
It’s unclear exactly what levels of vaccine hesitancy there is throughout OC, but Boden-Albala said there’s enough that she’s worried about it.
“I think people are nervous about side effects — this is a safe vaccine,” she said, adding that severe side effects are extremely rare. “There’s nothing without some risk, but the risk is so minimal here … I think that is one of the big sources of hesitancy.”
Rossel said it’s tough to gauge what level of hesitancy exists in the county right now.
“Right now we’re seeing people who need the vaccine, but we need a little bit of time to see how much hesitancy is out there … I do see a good percentage of people who were saying they were not going to get the vaccines are now getting vaccines.”
Dozens of people were lined up in front of the Families Together clinic in Garden Grove yesterday to get their shots.
The clinics stagger their appointment times so most people can get their shot and leave within 30 minutes, which includes a 15-minute observation period for any potential side effects.
Community organizations, like Santa Ana-based Latino Health Access, have been reaching out to the hardest hit communities to get vaccines using their roughly 140 community health workers, known as promotores.
Boden-Albala also noted the misinformation floating around on the internet.
Rossel said he and his staff are also fighting misinformation.
“We’re sending mass texts to our patients, sending messages on Twitter and Facebook … trying to fight the misinformation out there with some facts,” he said.
Meanwhile, Orange County’s hospitalizations decreased slightly since yesterday.
As of Tuesday, 113 people were hospitalized, including 25 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has now killed 4,900 people — nine times as many residents than the flu kills on a yearly average.
COVID deaths surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC.
It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively.
Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest 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.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio