After nearly one year of the COVID-19 vaccination efforts, Orange County’s Latino community still lags behind when compared to other racial and ethnic groups. 

The community is among the hardest hit by the pandemic in OC, and the state. 

In Orange County, Latinos make up roughly 35% of the population, have nearly 44% of all confirmed cases and nearly 38% of all deaths since the pandemic began, according to county Health Care Agency data.

“Latinos have also been neglected, quite frankly, by our public health system — obviously at all levels and in the way the politics have operated during COVID,” said Alana LeBrón, a UC Irvine public health professor who focuses on how structural racism produces public health inequities. 

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According to state data, Latinos make up over 35% of Orange County’s vaccine-eligible residents.

Yet only 22% have been vaccinated.

“I give our Orange County Health Care Agency a failing grade when it comes to health equity and a failing response to the pandemic.”

Alana LeBrón, a UC Irvine public health professor who focuses on how structural racism produces public health inequities. 

“Our local public health leadership has a lot of accountability in this area and Latinos, Vietnamese and other racially minoritized groups have been an afterthought,” LeBrón said, lambasting the initial vaccine rollout. 

When the county’s vaccine registration phone app first rolled out early this year, it was only available in English — despite the $1.2 million contract calling for Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean translations.  

[Read: Language Translations Delayed for Orange County’s Coronavirus Othena Vaccine App]

The app was also plagued by glitches, with Supervisor Don Wagner publicly saying “Othena sucks” during a January OC supervisors meeting.

In contrast, San Diego County’s Latino vaccination gap is much smaller. 

According to state data, Latinos in that county make up 34% of vaccine-eligible residents, while 29% of the community has been vaccinated.

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Meanwhile, state and local public health officials have been gearing up vaccination sites at schools following the FDA’s approval of vaccines for people 5 and up.

Many public health experts see school vaccine sites as another key way to start closing the persisting shot gap. 

“Everybody’s busy and sometimes it’s not really just about the vaccine hesitancy or anything like that — sometimes it’s just about convenience, convenience, convenience. This strategy assumes that if you offer it and lower the threshold of activation, people will take you up on it and I think it’s very smart,” said Dr. Shruti Gohil, an infectious disease doctor who treats COVID patients at the UCI Medical Center. 

Epidemiologists, like Daniel Parker, also agree school sites are foundational in reducing vaccine disparities. 

“I think schools are super important for outreach and getting vaccines out to the communities. And there’s been a lot of interaction with  the schools,” Parker, a UCI public health expert, said in a phone interview. “Santa Ana and Anaheim (schools) have been super involved with contact tracing, educating the community and now with vaccine efforts. To me, that’s super awesome.”

The pandemic has hit Anaheim and Santa Ana the hardest.

While the two cities make up roughly 21% of Orange County’s 3.2 million residents, they have nearly 32% of all COVID-19 cases and 34% of deaths.

Latinos make up more than half of Anaheim’s 350,000 residents and three-quarters of Santa Ana’s 332,000 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Countywide, the virus has now killed more than 5,800 residents, according to the county Health Care Agency.

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LeBrón said much of the work to close the gap has been left to local health clinics and community based organizations and criticized county officials for giving a $15 million CDC-funded contract to United Way to address pandemic disparities. 

“United Way has not been seen as doing the work around vaccine equity in particular. Sure, they’ve been doing other good things, but this is not in their wheelhouse,” she said. “I’m really curious about why the county is not investing in our local health equity leaders to carry us through this phase of the pandemic. It’s blatantly obvious that local health equity leaders are not at the table.” 

[Read: OC Health Director Publicly Challenged by His Bosses Over No-Bid Contracts Funded by Feds]

Alex Rossel, CEO of the local health clinic Families Together of Orange County, has repeatedly called on county officials to partner more with the clinics and community organizations already in the trenches, instead of bringing in someone new. 

“The community clinics have relationships with the patients. The community clinics already have a place in the community, so how do you expect an organization who’s not out there to get into the community?” Rossel said in a phone interview. 

He also said combined efforts with state and local public health officials have fallen apart in recent months, despite those same officials touting the importance of such partnerships.

“The state, the county — they were all reaching out and working to do outreach and to get these vaccines out. But now I don’t really see that and I don’t really have the answer why. I’m disappointed.”

Alex Rossel, CEO of the local health clinic Families Together of Orange County

One Santa Ana-based community organization, Latino Health Access, has been forging key relationships with local schools, churches and other community places in an effort to get vaccines to the hardest-hit neighborhoods.

The consistent outreach efforts are paying off, said Loreta Ruiz, director of COVID response for Latino Health Access.

From late November to early December, vaccinations jumped from about 115 a day to over 600 at certain shot clinics, she said. 

“I think it’s looking awesome, honestly. The number of vaccines has tremendously increased,” she said, noting the vaccine increases started after the FDA authorized the shots for children 5 and up in early November. 

“The schools are key,” Ruiz said.

[Read: OC School Vaccine Clinics Could Be On the Way After Feds OK Shots for Kids 5 and Up]

Ruiz also said Latino Health Access started training more staff on how to vaccinate children, along with providing information to the parents about the shots. 

“We knew there was going to be an increase. So two months ago, we started training more staff,” she said. 

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While community organizations and local health clinics are gearing up to get more shots into OC’s hardest hit communities, another variant has surfaced — known as Omicron.

Some infectious disease experts say it will likely drive a winter surge.

Although it’s unclear how big the surge will be, they say. 

[Read: Local Public Health Experts Say OC Residents Can Expect Winter COVID Surge Fueled by Omicron]

“We don’t know much yet. It’s a little scary with the growth,” Parker, the epidemiologist, said. “From our perspective, the worst case scenario is this one is able to evade the vaccine a little bit. But it won’t take us long to redesign the vaccine if that’s the case … that’s one of the really nice things about those mRNA vaccines.”

Gohil, the infectious disease doctor, said people shouldn’t panic over the new variant.

“We expected that a new variant would come around. I’d say the question is we didn’t know is when it would come around,” she said, noting viruses naturally mutate — especially when they spread unchecked in areas with low vaccine coverage.

Both Gohil and Parker said they expect to see a surge this upcoming winter, but don’t think it will be nearly as bad as the winter wave of 2020.

“Should we panic? No, we shouldn’t,” Gohil said. “If we have learned anything in this pandemic, it is the strength of the vaccines that have kept us safe from hospitalization. That data is just clear.” 

Gohil said most of COVID patients she’s been treating are unvaccinated, including someone in their 30s who might not survive.

“The vast majority are unvaccinated patients — period. So people have to take that message in. We still have a lot to learn about Omicron. I don’t think we know enough to really estimate what the impact is going to be. We just don’t yet.” 

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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