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A band of community organizations and local health clinics have partnered with the Orange County Health Care Agency to get more seniors vaccinated by providing appointment registration and transportation services.

It’s a collaborative effort stemming from the early days of the pandemic when testing wasn’t widely available to everyone in the county — so community organizations banded together to bring testing directly to the most impacted neighborhoods. 

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A Santa Ana senior couple boards the bus to their scheduled second vaccination appointment. Clients are picked up in the Abrazar bus which provides transportation to and from any vaccination appointment. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“The community health centers, the [community organizations], the mobile clinics, the large medical institutions that are vaccinating and the vaccine super pods are all part of the equation,” said Mario Ortega, CEO of Abrazar, a Westminster-based nonprofit aimed at helping seniors and other residents access medical services and other social services.

Ortega said his fleet of 72 vehicles has been taking seniors to vaccination supersites and to smaller, neighborhood clinics. 

“We have taken over 12,000 people to the super pods alone. These are primarily seniors and the disabled and those that have some type of mobility issues that we helped book appointments to go through the super pods,” he said in a Wednesday phone interview. 

The seniors get picked up, vaccinated on the bus at the super sites and are dropped off at home in roughly an hour, Ortega said, urging people to call (714) 278-4670 if they need help registering for a vaccine appointment or a ride to the shot.

Like other community organization leaders, Ortega said many of the residents they serve have various hurdles to traditional services, like not being able to use the county vaccine registration app, Othena, due to language barriers or technology issues. 

Because of that, various organizations have adjusted to provide registration services for people.

Ortega said Abrazar has become a “one-stop shop” for vaccines. 

A dose is prepared outside of the bus on April 22, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“Ultimately the goal is that wherever we can get them vaccinated — that’s how we’re going to be able to recover as a community,” he said.

Families Together of Orange County, a community health center, has been partnering with various organizations throughout the county to get frontline workers and seniors vaccinated. 

“We were doing the shopping centers with the partnership with the city of Tustin and we lined up all the restaurants to be vaccinated and every little bit counts,” Families Together CEO Alexander Rossel said in a phone interview last week. 

The community clinic also has offices in Tustin and Garden Grove, which are vaccinating people daily.

UC Irvine Founding Dean of the public health program, Bernadette Boden-Albala, said the collaborative efforts have been closing the vaccination gaps, but they started from behind. 

“In the beginning of this it took weeks and weeks to get things translated. It took weeks and weeks to work out the kinks in Othena and even MyTurn,” Boden-Albala said in a phone interview last week. “In all that time we were vaccinating everybody but our most vulnerable communities were really left behind.” 

She said more resources should be put on vaccinating those who were left out of the initial efforts.

Ortega said he and his staff made recommendations to county officials on how to better vaccinate elderly and disabled residents at the super sites.

“We spent several days at all the different locations and they implemented the recommendations. The great thing is that our feedback didn’t fall on deaf ears,” he said, adding the supersites are a critical piece of the puzzle. “If we don’t have that as part of the solution to get everyone vaccinated, we’re missing a huge chunk of the population.” 

Jose Gomez receives his second vaccine dose at the Santa Ana college vaccination pod on April 22, 2021. Vaccinations through the non-profit Abrazar are administered on the bus, clients do not have to walk through the vaccination pod. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Almost 1.5 million people in OC have received at least one shot of the vaccine, according to county Health Care Agency data

During Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting, OC Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said roughly 80% of all the county’s seniors have been vaccinated.

A statewide reopening is expected June 15, when officials are slated to lift nearly all coronavirus restrictions except masks.

Boden-Albala said it’s critical to ramp up vaccine efforts even more as the statewide reopening draws near. 

“I feel there’s this time urgency and we really need to beef that effort up and that’s my issue with access — access and hesitancy are both problems,” Boden-Albala said

Community organizations like Latino Health Access have been using their roughly 140 neighborhood health workers — promotores — to ease people’s concerns about the vaccine and to help them schedule appointments to get vaccinated. 

“So we were able to work with the county and Othena for us to be able to directly schedule those appointments without having people go on the app,” said Latino Health Access Chief Program Officer, Nancy Mejia, in a phone interview earlier this month.

Ortega said Abrazar isn’t just helping the residents they served before the pandemic, but others throughout the community.

“Today, The Cambodian Family (a Santa Ana community group) registered people they work with, they then worked with us to schedule transportation and we’re taking them to the clinic at Korean Community Services. We’ve been doing that with so many of the organizations,” he said. 

He said rides to vaccination clinics and registration services are available to anyone. 

“If you’ve been struggling, call one of us and get vaccinated. We will help you out if you need transportation if you need to get to a super pod, or a community health center or one of the mobile clinics — we will work it out,” Ortega said. 

Meanwhile, Orange County’s hospitalizations have plateaued. 

As of Wednesday, 125 people were hospitalized, including 24 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

The virus has now killed 4,944 people — nine times more 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 scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio 

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