Vaccination gaps remain in Orange County and throughout California as more businesses are reopening and state public health officials are expected to lift nearly all coronavirus restrictions in two months. 

Some public health experts say the vaccine gaps could cause residents living in the most impacted communities to see a disproportionate increase in new virus cases.

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The biggest vaccination disparity — locally and statewide — is faced by the Latino community. 

“That’s especially problematic and troublesome because I think any kind of opening up or messages of opening up has a risk of increased cases and we know that risk is not borne equally by different communities. There’s huge disparities in terms of who’s at risk when things are opened up,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health professor, Sanghyuk Shin. 

He said essential workers, especially from the Latino community, could feel the impacts from the wave of reopenings, coupled with not enough vaccinations. 

“They’re the ones that, unfortunately, might bear the brunt of these policies. Not just policies, but communication as well. The communication that basically we’re at this stage where we can open everything up,” Shin said in a Tuesday phone interview. 

Although state public health officials have earmarked 40% of vaccines for the Golden State’s hardest hit communities, some of those doses aren’t making it there, said Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. 

“We need to figure out how to do that even better because based on the data we’re seeing not all those doses are staying in those communities,” Savage-Sangwan said in a Wednesday phone interview. 

Overall, Savage-Sangwan and Shin said they’re glad to see state officials plan to reopen nearly everything June 15, but are concerned not enough vaccines are going to the hardest hit communities, who are often essential workers.  

Savage-Sangwan also said while progress has been made on closing the gaps, it’s been largely stalled. 

“We see significant undervaccination in Black and Latino communities in particular and, unfortunately, we’re not seeing improvements in that data either over the past month or so,” Savage-Sangwan said. 

Statewide, Latinos make up nearly 39% of residents, have almost 47% of cases, 50% of deaths and received nearly 20% of the vaccines so far, according to state data

The Black community makes up roughly 6% of the state’s residents, has nearly 7% of cases, a little over 5% of deaths and has received 3% of vaccines. 

Savage-Sangwan and Shin both said public health officials should give local health clinics and community organizations more vaccines and resources to close the gaps.

“We certainly need to do more and invest more resources if we’re going to be able to get our folks who are the most vulnerable vaccinated before the [June 15] reopening date,” Savage-Sangwan said. 

White people make up nearly 37% of residents, have 33% of cases, 30% of deaths and have received 29% of vaccines so far. 

The Asian community makes up just over 15% of the state’s residents, has over 9% of cases, nearly 13% of deaths and has received nearly 12% of the total doses. 

Shin said there’s been inconsistent messaging from all levels of government. 

“The CDC director last week announced she was alarmed,” Shin said. “It seems to me, as a member of the public, what we’re hearing from the CDC seems different from the kind of rosy picture that we’re getting from the California policymakers.”

He also said it’s tough to tell where the state might be in two months because of the vaccine ramp up and a relatively low increase in new cases.  

“I think, at this point, it’s just impossible to know in the next few months what the epidemiological trajectory will be,” Shin said. 

There’s also similar vaccination gaps in Orange County, according to the county’s vaccine and case dashboards.

Latinos, while making up roughly 35% of OC’s residents, have had nearly 47% of all cases, nearly 38% of deaths and have received 11% of the vaccinations so far. 

In comparison, white people make up nearly 39% of the population, have almost 25% cases, nearly 38% of deaths and have received nearly 36% of vaccines. 

Shin said he expects a bump in cases to happen at some point, based on observing other parts of the country. 

But he’s unsure how bad the increases could be. 

“It’s only a matter of time when we’re going to see the same trend here in California,” Shin said. “There’s huge disparities in terms of who’s at risk when things are opened up.” 

Other communities in Orange County aren’t facing the types of gaps Latinos are, according to aggregate data.

The Black community makes up roughly 2% of the population, has a little over 1% of cases and deaths and has received about 1% of the vaccines so far. 

The Asian community makes up 21% of OC’s residents, has a little over 12% of cases, nearly 21% of deaths and has received 19% of the vaccines. 

Meanwhile, Orange County’s hospitalizations have plateaued somewhat. 

As of Wednesday, 114 people were hospitalized, including 29 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Andrew Noymer, said the county is heading in the right direction. 

“Right now, Orange County’s looking great,” Noymer said in a Tuesday phone interview. 

Like his colleague, Shin, he’s not sure what the situation will look like June 15 because vaccinations are ramping up and cases in OC and California have remained relatively stable. 

“The biggest thing is mid-June is still a ways off,” Noymer said, adding if it wasn’t for the mass vaccination efforts, “this plan would be absolutely cuckoo.” 

The virus has now killed 4,791 people.

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 Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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