Calling attention to low COVID-19 vaccination rates in East Palo Alto, one of the hardest hit cities in San Mateo County, Peninsula representatives urged state and federal leadership to prioritize vaccinations in those areas most in need of relief.
“COVID is more than a medical virus. It is a wake-up call to the structural inequalities this city has endured since its inception,” said East Palo Alto Councilman Antonio Lopez. “It is a reminder that after decades of reform there are still two sides to the Bay Area.”
Lopez, state Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo; David Canepa, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors; Ana Maria Pulido, trustee with the Ravenswood City Elementary School District board; and former mayor Larry Moody came together for a press conference at Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School Monday to highlight vaccine access disparities in areas like East Palo Alto.
To date, nearly 154,000 residents have been vaccinated in the county or 24% of the San Mateo County’s population ages 16 and older. But in East Palo Alto, only 11.68% of the city’s population over the age of 16 has been vaccinated followed by 15.3% in North Fair Oaks.
Most other cities’ populations in the county have vaccination rates ranging between 20% and nearly 50%. In Pescadero, the county reports 100% of those ages 16 and older have been vaccinated as of Feb. 27.
To amend seemingly inequitable access to vaccines, Becker suggested the state use census tracts to determine where to send doses and stage clinics. Tracts are currently used to influence a county’s Health Equity Metric, a figure that monitors where the virus is spread the most.
The metric has historically shown that East Palo Alto has been hard hit by the virus, reporting 4,216 positive cases. Only the larger cities of neighboring Redwood City, San Mateo and Daly City have more.
By directing doses to smaller entities like East Palo Alto’s Ravenswood Family Health Center, and partnering with trusted community organizations, the officials believe the city and others like it could begin to slowly catch up with better performing jurisdictions.
The county has provided doses for smaller clinics, including Ravenswood periodically, but large vaccination sites have not been deployed in south county. Canepa said a new vaccination effort in the area will be announced in the coming weeks and emphasized recent mobile vaccination clinics tested in Daly City as another potential solution.
Many doses have been administered through larger vaccination events. The San Mateo County Event Center has been used by the county, Sutter Health and Dignity Health as a vaccine clinic site where thousands of doses have been administered.
“We could scale like you couldn’t believe but again it’s about getting those doses,” said Canepa.
More recently, roughly 12,500 doses were administered at San Francisco International Airport for those ages 65 and older regardless of insurance coverage or provider. But digital barriers and demanding work schedules have prevented eligible residents from accessing appointments, theorized officials.
School return and economic recovery
As of Feb. 22, the county opened vaccine eligibility to education staff, law enforcement, retail employees and those in the agriculture sector including farmworkers and grocery store employees.
Pulido said access to vaccines for teachers is paramount for getting East Palo Alto schools open and disadvantaged students back to in-person learning. Parents, eager to send their children to school, still fear their children will contract the virus and teachers have also shown great apprehension, she said.
“If we can get not only teachers but students vaccinated, people will feel comfortable returning to work,” said Pulido. “They won’t have to feel like they have to choose between their health and their livelihood.”
Also concerned for getting residents back to work, Lopez and Moody both highlighted the city’s unemployment rate of around 10%. Moody said the community would be eager to return to work if they felt safe to do so, noting many residents work outside of the city.
High case rates in East Palo Alto have also been attributed to the city’s essential workforce that frequently comes into contact with others. Latinos, which account for more than 66% of the city’s population, have also been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, accounting for nearly half of the county’s 38,831 COVID-19 cases.
“East Palo Alto wants to be a part of that movement but we have to make sure that our residents can leave our community healthy and that they can integrate with other communities … in a healthy manner,” said Moody.
Canepa and Becker said increased supply is the region’s first hurdle, noting officials require greater leeway for planning vaccination events. Currently, the state informs the county of how many doses it is to receive a week in advance despite previously promising it would provide at least three weeks notice, said the representatives.
Both shared hope in the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine that received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administrations on Saturday, Feb. 27. Becker said the state is slated to receive 1.1 million Johnson & Johnson doses over the next three weeks.
“We need to, yes, increase the supply from the federal government,” said Becker. “Then we need to increase the resources on the ground to get that supply to these communities.”
Unlike the Pfizer Inc. and Moderna vaccines, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires just one dose. The other two products require two doses, 21 days apart for the Pfizer product and 28 for Moderna.
The Johnson & Johnson product also has a slightly lower efficacy rate of 85%, compared to 95% reported for Moderna and Pfizer. Officials have noted that COVID-19 vaccine efficacy rates are far stronger than other vaccines such as for the flu, which typically ranges between 40% to 60% effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Voicing confidence in the city’s ability to ramp up vaccination effort, Lopez noted the city still phases many messaging hurdles. He raised concerns disproportionately affected communities like East Palo Alto would shy away from taking the newly approved vaccine considering how little is known about its success or effects compared to other products that have been administered for months.
“It’s not about the accuracy. It’s about perception,” said Lopez. “The 1.1 million [Johnson & Johnson doses] is awesome but if it’s the latest iteration now you have a new terrain to work with which is how do you convince someone … [to take something] that just got authorized a week ago.”
Recognizing vaccine apprehension, Lopez said messaging is top of mind for him and his fellow councilmembers. The city will be hosting a study session at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 4, to discuss testing, contact tracing and vaccine rollout.
The event will feature Deputy County Manager Justin Mates, Ravenswood Family Health Center CEO Luisa Buada, and Chief of Mass Vaccination Dr. Anand Chabra.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” said Lopez. “It’s going to take a lot of trust and a lot of time.”
Visit ci.east-palo-alto.ca.us/citycouncil/page/city-council-meeting-special-study-session-0 for more information on participating in East Palo Alto’s Zoom COVID-19 study session.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106