Orange County’s community groups and local clinics are being stretched thin as they work together to vaccinate as many residents as possible ahead of the slated June 15 statewide reopening.
“The nonprofit organizations such as ourselves, Abrazar, Latino Health Access — we’re funded on soft money from philanthropic organizations. So I guarantee you all the work we’re doing is by volunteers and on shoestring budgets,” said Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers.
The nonprofit community organizations have been working with various federally funded local health clinics to bolster shots throughout OC — especially to the hardest hit neighborhoods — and reduce positivity rates.
Many organizations have hotlines offering residents vaccine registration assistance and transportation to get vaccinated through a network of partnerships between organizations and health clinics.
While the efforts are paying off, the funding could be in jeopardy.
State officials have repeatedly announced increased funding to the community organizations, like the coalition, but Becerra said nobody’s seen any of it yet.
“We’re all applying for everything out there, but there’s no proactive efforts either at the local or state level. I’d like to see more of the local organizations, local funders step up to the plate and recognize the efforts that the local nonprofits are doing. It all starts in your backyard,” Becerra said.
She also said while federal funding is flowing to the health clinics, they could use more money because a lot of resources are being directed to the community vaccination efforts.
At last Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting, Orange County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said the county might soon shift to more neighborhood clinics if they see a drop in people going to the vaccination supersites.
County officials began offering walk-up shots to residents starting last Saturday.
Becerra said that could mean demand for the super sites is dropping as more people go to the community clinics.
“When we do open clinics for walk-ins, many individuals come from far places like Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Orange Hills and they always ask if they can get vaccinated here — absolutely you can,” Becerra said in a Tuesday phone interview.
The community health clinics are typically located in the county’s poorest areas, where many people don’t have health insurance and face multiple hurdles to getting vaccinated like language barriers, transportation issues and the inability to get time off work.
Becerra said more efforts need to be made at the community clinic level for OC to be ready for the June 15 statewide reopening.
“Unless we ramp up these small clinic efforts, we might be hard pressed. I think we need to switch up our strategy in the last leg of this race otherwise we won’t make it,” she said, adding the county should shift their focus to the clinics.
While Chau and state officials said they’re battling vaccine hesitancy, Becerra said the clinics haven’t seen it yet.
Suellen Hopfer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine, has been researching how to best address vaccine hesitancy.
“At this stage, to reach the hesitant folks, the kind of unsure, on the fence people, we need to provide these upstream structural incentives. Like a day off from work,” Hopfer said in a Tuesday phone interview. “Those are employer based policies I think we need, at this point, to incentivize.”
She said more people are likely to trust getting a vaccine from neighborhood clinics and community organizations than a super site because the clinics are able to ease concerns at a personal level.
“I think the community sites are more accessible for different communities and that should be recognized and they’ve made a lot of progress,” Hopfer said. “It is more labor intensive and a lot of people are volunteering to do that work, but it does pay off.”
It’s also unclear how many people are falling through the cracks as the data collected by the state doesn’t represent the whole community.
State and local public health officials have also been pushing back against waves of misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines.
Hopfer said she’s working with the UCI’s computer science department to create an algorithm to find the misinformation sources to counter it.
“We’ve identified the top misinformation themes across six different categories, like prevention and treatment, on social media. We’re developing algorithms to automatically detect that and then we’re building a program to automatically interject and redirect to accurate information,” she said.
Meanwhile, Orange County’s virus hospitalizations have dipped to their lowest levels in over a year.
As of Tuesday, 97 people were hospitalized, including 26 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has now killed 4,978 people — more than nine times the flu does 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