Updated Feb. 1: This story has been changed to include new information about an anticipated vaccine pop-up in February.
COVID-19 vaccine demand continues to far outweigh supply in California. While Sacramento County county says they are currently working with community groups to help them prepare to administer vaccines, those groups are worried marginalized people are being left out of the equation.
At the Gender Health Center, which primarily serves queer and transgender people of color, operations director Ōme Tiêu says the site would like to administer vaccines, but the county has not been in contact with them about it.
Tiêu says community members often come in to ask for health information or use the computers because they don’t have reliable internet access.
“So if they're not even able to access these kind of basic things, then naturally they're not even going to have any awareness of the potential for them to receive these vaccines,” Tiêu said. “So for us, the best thing that we can do is provide more direct communication with our community members and direct advocacy.”
As the state shifts its priority groups to focus on getting shots to seniors and certain frontline workers, officials have yet to detail how they’ll get doses to racial and economic groups that face systemic barriers to health care — namely Black and brown Californians who are contracting and dying from the virus at the highest rates.
In Sacramento County, nonprofit clinics that largely serve uninsured individuals and Medi-Cal enrollees say they can and should be a mainstay of the vaccine distribution network. These groups say they have access to people who might otherwise be hard to reach, such as undocumented immigrants, unhoused individuals and others with technology and transportation barriers.
The county has allocated some doses to health systems, and to SaveMart and Safeway pharmacies, Most of the community clinics CapRadio spoke with said they have not yet received allotments of vaccines from the county health department, but that there’s a lot of work to do before doses arrive.
“We don't have anything from county public health right now,” said Rachel Rios, executive director of La Familia Counseling Center. “We need to be working on the messaging now so that when they are available, people are not afraid. We shouldn't be waiting until then to start getting the message out about why they should be vaccinated.”
She said the community La Familia serves — largely Latinx residents including undocumented families and agricultural workers — will be especially hard to reach due to language barriers, fears around deportation and cultural beliefs about vaccines, such as religious and ethical concerns about the use of fetal cells in research.
The clinic has already identified sites where they can access frontline workers and people over 65, who are eligible for the vaccine now, but they need the county’s signoff to start moving forward, Rios said.
“If Jesuit can organize a one-day vaccination site after school, why can’t we do the same thing in the fields?” she said, referring to a January vaccination event at Jesuit High School.
“That’s what privilege and access offers, and these people don't have that, so we have to be their voices," Rios said. "We can organize a one-day, get out there to the field. We can work with our health partners to do this. We just need to get that authority from the health department.”
In collaboration with the Latino Economic Council, La Familia has submitted a proposal to Sacramento County that involves vaccinating 100,000 people in 100 days, when supplies are available. They would do this at three different sites — a resource center in South Sacramento, the Mexican Consulate in North Sacramento and a site in the rural Galt area at the southern end of the county.
Rios says the county did give the green light to vaccinate 150 people at a “pop-up” vaccine event in February, in collaboration with the Sacramento Native American Health Center. She says logistics such as location and how to identify patients are still being worked out.
Sacramento County health leaders are working with about 15 community-based organizations through the Sierra Health Foundation, according to an emailed statement. They say they’re helping organizations to ensure proper logistical handling of vaccines and finding ways to mitigate potential barriers so that eligible community members can actually receive the vaccine.
When the county opened up a drive-through vaccination site at Cal Expo earlier this month, public health officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye acknowledged that walk-up sites will also be needed for people without access to a vehicle. They did not have a ballpark on when those sites would be in operation.
“We are aware that for some of the disadvantaged communities, some of them do not have transportation so they would not be able to come here,” she said.
The county is not currently vaccinating people over age 65 on a large scale. They’re recommending that people in this age group be on the lookout for communication from their health provider, as some of the large hospital systems are giving out vaccines to elderly patients.
But people of color are more likely than white people to be uninsured or not have access to a primary care provider, said Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director of the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network.
She says the state needs to identify the neighborhoods that are most affected by COVID-19 and target the distribution of vaccines to those areas.
“What we learned from [COVID-19] testing here in Sacramento is that Cal Expo wasn’t accessible and didn’t reach low-income communities of color,” she said. “We don’t want to replicate that mistake with vaccine distribution.”
The Sacramento Native American Health Center says they’re receiving vaccine doses from the county and will be administering shots to select elderly patients this weekend. Jeanine Gaines, a member of the Potawatomi Nation and the clinic’s communication manager, said the hold-ups with the roll-out are understandable.
“We recognize this is not the county, they're the ones making the vaccine,” she said. “The hiccups that we have had with communication … It really is a big systemic issue that the county is dealing with on their end as well. But they've been very communicative with us to ensure we have the information to share with our patients.”
WellSpace Health, a network of clinics that largely serves low-income and unhoused individuals, said they expect to get vaccines from the county in February and are already looking through medical records to identify patients who are eligible.
“We're going to actually try to proactively reach out to them and let them know, because we know that some of those folks who may be most in need of the vaccine may not be the ones necessarily calling us,” said spokesperson Ben Avey.
Sacramento County is currently allowing people older than 65, as well as education and food and agricultural workers, to sign up and be notified when vaccine appointments are available. The county estimates they’ll start vaccinating this group in early February, according to KCRA. Members of the public can sign up on the health department site, email [email protected] or call the hotline at 916-875-3400.