Orange County Health Care Agency officials face real challenges in getting vaccines to Latinos throughout the county.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

But they don’t like to talk about it publicly. 

That’s why the same agency officials keep facing the same challenges

In the same communities.

Repeatedly.

Note that Latinos are unfortunately consistently leaders in Orange County when it comes to the ugliest of COVID categories: Deaths and cases.

The community has seen nearly 96,000 confirmed cases and 2,045 deaths. 

In Santa Ana, a city that is nearly 80 percent Latino, officials are so frustrated with how county supervisors have managed the county public health department during the pandemic that they are considering establishing their own.

In Orange County, our local board of supervisors doesn’t ask questions about health and safety metrics in public, much less drill down into details during their public meetings to help craft public policy that aims to address critical issues, like vaccine gaps in communities of color during an ongoing pandemic. 

If they did, they would have quickly realized that — for whatever reason — Orange County is dead last in getting vaccines to the Latino community, according to state figures tracking vaccine distribution. 

Dead last.

In Orange County, 40.8 percent of Latinos are vaccinated.

Compare that to the numbers out of San Diego County, which are at 63.1 percent. 

Pretty big gap for two communities with nearly equal amounts of residents. 

Los Angeles County is behind San Diego at 50.8 percent, but still way ahead of OC. 

Our two neighboring counties to the East in the Inland Empire — Riverside and San Bernardino — are at 43.6 percent and 42.9 percent, respectively. 

Also ahead of OC. 

Now, based on a ton of interviews over the last week with providers and contractors in the area — all concerned about speaking up due to potential blowback from county Health Care Agency officials — there seems to be several patterns emerging.

There may be a huge challenge facing policy makers with vaccine hesitancy among Latinos. 

Many are reporting that disinformation in the Latino community — rumors like microchips in the vaccine — are making their mark. 

Like all residents, Latinos too have lots of questions about the safety of vaccines as well as concerns about side effects.

But these residents may not be getting the same amount of information as is produced in English to help them answer those questions and concerns. 

For many working class Latinos, there are also different questions, like how to avoid losing a day of work because the second dose of the vaccine wipes them out. 

Or what kind of identification or government tracking comes with the vaccine?

I am hearing a need for much more information efforts in the Latino community.

I already noticed this week that the community health clinics were starting to host town halls to answer vaccine questions from residents. 

Voice of OC is also planning to do a town hall on vaccine issues as well, exploring whether they can be translated or just done in Spanish. 

Regarding vaccine distribution strategy among Latinos and communities of color, there are lots of legitimate questions about whether to deploy vaccine clinics, mobile efforts or vaccine supersites.

From what I hear, it’s time to hit the streets and get creative.

Go to where people are. 

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On Tuesday, Deputy Public Health Officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong confirmed the issues being confronted in terms of figuring out the Latino vaccination gap.

She didn’t have any concrete answers, which makes me wonder whether we would have heard anything about this unless we reporters asked. 

After we asked, Chinsio-Kwong noted that the low Latino vaccination rate was “likely a combination of factors.”

She questioned whether people just weren’t filling out forms correctly in terms of identifying race and ethnicity.

In addition, she noted that OC Health Care Agency officials are working to address vaccine hesitancy issues as well as the need to improve access for working class residents, many of whom are Latino. 

She mentioned that agency partners are continuing to get creative and target areas like high density apartments and community gathering places like bakeries, churches and schools. 

What she couldn’t answer — even though  I asked — is why Orange County’s Health Care Agency keeps underserving Latinos, whether it’s with testing or vaccines. 

The same community keeps getting super crunched during every COVID surge. 

Will that ever change? 

These are the kinds of details — Latinos are behind in vaccinations — that get lost when you halt any sort of public updates or press conferences during an ongoing disaster like the pandemic. 

Yet that’s exactly what Orange County’s top Republican and Democrat County Supervisors, Andrew Do and Doug Chaffee, pulled off for most of the year. 

A near total blackout on public questioning. 

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Given that informal gag order, Voice of OC relaunched a popular series of town halls on COVID last month to help the public understand the nature of the latest virus surge, as well as individual options for tackling it. 

Recently, one county supervisor — Democrat Katrina Foley — broke away from her colleagues and started asking Health Care Agency officials to join her in taking press questions, which are broadcast on Facebook Live. 

Yet after a few productive sessions with the regions’ press corps, Supervisors Do and Chaffee pushed Health Care Agency Director Clayton Chau — who supervisors also appointed as Public Health Officer — to end the practice. 

This week, Foley publicly told reporters she had brokered an agreement to allow public health officials to meet with reporters and the public every other week, again broadcast on Facebook Live. 

She publicly credited the Orange County Register’s Editorial Board for coming out as a loud voice in favor of rigorous public debate on the pandemic at the county. 

Indeed, Foley’s press conferences offer a very different opportunity for the press corps to put questions to officials and ask follow up questions when they dodge.

It’s a starkly different approach than the phone-in media call reporters get with OC CEO Frank Kim and Chinsio-Kwong, which do not allow for any follow up questions.

The county weekly phone-in press briefings, which lasted 33 minutes last week, also doesn’t allow the public to see what is being asked, or what is not being answered, because it’s not broadcast on Facebook. 

This kind of insular approach to a disaster unfortunately contributes to the vulnerable being left behind. 

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In many ways, it’s the same kind of approach that Orange County’s Health Care Agency has maintained for decades — note the agency’s inability to mount an effective response to the most recent public health crisis, homelessness.

The county’s last two homelessness Czars — employed directly by the agency — have left for jobs in other Orange County public agencies.

That’s because there’s no vision at the top levels of the county government for their work.

Just politics and photo-ops. 

It’s much the same when it comes to Latinos and the communities they largely live in across Orange County.

The County of Orange isn’t on the ground with services as much as it could have been over the last decade. 

And that cost the Health Care Agency dearly when the pandemic hit.

They just didn’t do their homework in the Latino community. 

The pandemic response has made that super clear. 

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Health Care Agency officials have been able to get a huge head start in the Latino community with many of the nonprofit partners they are working with — and by all reports have done it well. 

But there is not a strong public vision or county funding commitments for the challenge in addressing the various health gaps.

That historically has fallen to county supervisors and on senior Health Care Agency leaders.

And when you look at the numbers, like Latino vaccination rates or other health indicators in many of the communities where Latinos live, it’s clear these officials are failing.

That’s why elected and agency officials don’t seem particularly excited to have residents looking at raw numbers in real time. 

And that’s why it’s incredibly important for us as residents to continue pushing for transparency.

Without it, our collective health is in the hands of politicians and in serious jeopardy. 

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