Orange County residents 16 and older are now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, while some worries have surfaced that the move could slow getting shots to working class communities, which are among the hardest hit during the pandemic.
“Our concern is that now the line is open to everyone, how are we going to ensure, as a community, that the most impacted communities are not going to fall to the back of the line,” said Nancy Mejia, chief program officer at Latino Health Access, in a Thursday phone interview.
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She said many aren’t able to take time off work to get vaccinated at the county vaccination super sites, which usually run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Mejia also said language barriers and technology hurdles could hamper efforts to vaccinate the working class communities, where many residents are essential workers.
“We know the population that we have been serving want the vaccine, but we continue to see those barriers,” Mejia said.
Dr. Jay Lee, chief medical officer of Share Our Selves health clinic, said it’s imperative to vaccinate as many people in those communities as the statewide reopening is expected June 15.
“I would argue that it’s the number one priority we have as a society right now, from a public health perspective. These are folks that work in roles that are essential and there’s a reason why they’re called essential workers. They are the key to driving the economy and keeping businesses running,” Lee said in a Wednesday phone interview.
Local health clinics, like Share Our Selves, have been vaccinating people in the most impacted communities in an effort to close vaccination gaps throughout the county.
Lee said while the county’s mass vaccination sites are good for many residents, the sites present challenges for many others.
“There has to be a particular focus on vulnerable patients and vulnerable populations because there are greater barriers to getting access to vaccines for them,” Lee said. “It’s absolutely critical that we find a way to get vaccines distributed equitably throughout the entirety of Orange County. Because if it’s impacting one community, it will spread to another — the virus doesn’t care which zip code you live in.”
The Orange County Health Care Agency has also been teaming up with various cities in recent weeks to host mobile vaccination clinics aimed at getting shots to the hardest hit communities.
Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Clinics, said the move to offer vaccines to anyone 16 and older will help vaccinate more people in the hardest hit communities through the neighborhood clinics.
“The community clinics patient population is very heavily concentrated in the 10 to 50 year old population. So a majority of our patients have not been eligible for vaccines until today,” Becerra said in a Thursday phone interview.
She said even more neighborhood clinics will be coming soon.
“We will continue — the coalition — to organize events at our partner locations such as the high schools, the supermarkets, the churches, in partnerships with [county supervisor] districts 1, 2 and 4 because there’s still pockets of the community that are not affiliated with a community health center that need access to vaccines,” Becerra said.
Mejia said the Santa Ana-based community organization, Latino Health Access, is also partnering with the coalition and the county to increase vaccination rates to the hardest hit areas.
The organization’s community health workers, known as promotoras, continue reaching out to residents in the most impacted neighborhoods.
“We are able to help people in Spanish through our call center and we’re also not waiting for people to call us. We are going out to the community. Since January, we’ve been going out to supermarkets, to churches, we have been knocking on doors … making sure people are able to schedule the [vaccine] appointment,” Mejia said.
Appointments from the county-run registration service, known as Othena, are booked out through next Monday. There’s no other appointments listed beyond Monday.
As of Thursday, the earliest available vaccination appointments at some hospitals are in early May.
A large number of appointments on the state’s registration site, MyTurn, were also booked.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said vaccine distribution is going to ramp up at the end of the month.
“Manufactured supply at the end of the month will significantly increase for Pfizer and Moderna,” Newsom said at a Thursday news conference. “What’s happening is the federal government is now doing direct supply at a much higher rate.”
The newly expanded eligibility also comes as federal officials halted shipments of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine because of six severe cases of blood clotting out of the roughly 7.5 million shots administered.
That means a drop of nearly half a million doses for the Golden State this week.
It’s unclear how long federal officials will withhold the Johnson and Johnson shipments as they investigate the blood clotting issue.
“We don’t know if that’s temporary on the basis of the [Johnson and Johnson] pause, or if that’s something to anticipate over the course of the next few months,” Newsom said.
Meanwhile, Orange County’s virs hospitalizations remain stable.
As of Thursday, 125 people were hospitalized, including 29 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has now killed 4,869 people — about nine times as many people than the flu kills on a yearly average.
COVID deaths have now 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.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio