By Mark Hedin
Los Angeles County is working to close equity gaps in COVID-19 vaccine distribution in hard-hit communities, relying on community health workers known as promotoras, new mobile vaccination clinics, and vaccine sites run by a network of community organizations, among other measures.
“There is hope on the horizon,” said Board of Supervisors Chair Hilda L. Solis at a March 4 county-sponsored telebriefing, pointing to a steady decrease in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
But while more than 2.2 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, “we have a lot of work to do to make sure that our most vulnerable in our communities are receiving their doses of hope,” Solis emphasized.
“In East L.A. cities in my district, where infection rates run to 20%, only 11.4% of residents have been vaccinated – whereas in Bel Air, it’s 34.3% of eligible residents. This is one of the lowest vaccination rates in our county, right here.”
Even though African American and Latinx communities have had higher rates of infections and deaths in the pandemic, their vaccination rates “remain dangerously low” – 28.9% and 34.3% respectively — “significantly lower than their white and Asian American counterparts,” Solis noted.
Among its responses, the county has invested $30 million in “promotoras,” a community health worker initiative, to help and encourage people to get their vaccinations as they become eligible to do so and as supplies permit.
“This is a network of residents, people that we know and we trust, who live in our communities,” Solis said of its 900-plus full- or part-time workers.
“They organize in community centers, with faith-based locations and even meeting people in laundromats. Their mission is to connect people with the right information and resources …to build that trust between government, L.A. County, our services and real people.”
“We’re going to make sure that those doses go to the right people and that we inform our communities about this partnership. It’s only by working together that we’re going to beat this pandemic.”
Hilda L. Solis, LA Board of Supervisors
So far, promotoras have helped more than 200,000 county residents, providing personal protective equipment and connections to other resources through a network of 16 community organizations led by the East Los Angeles Women’s Center.
One, with the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center, produced a new vaccination site at the East L.A. Civic Center that can vaccinate 400-600 people daily, Tuesday through Sundays, she said.
Solis also described a new mobile vaccination clinic bringing vaccines to seniors in public housing who have been unable to make appointments because they lacked internet or sometimes phone access.
“We’re going to make sure that those doses go to the right people and that we inform our communities about this partnership,” Solis said. “It’s only by working together that we’re going to beat this pandemic.”
County Director of Public Health Dr. Barbara Ferrer also celebrated the decrease since January in the rate of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, but cautioned that the decrease had only brought pandemic numbers back to where they were before the steep surge that began in November.
On some days this year, she said, she’s had to report more than 100 COVID-related deaths, whereas in early November, the average was 14.
“This pandemic is far from over,” she said. However, if case numbers continue declining, the county could qualify within weeks for “red tier” status that would allow for more re-openings.
“As families may now be making plans for spring break,” she said, “please consider staying local and enjoying the beautiful outdoor spaces around our county: the parks, beaches and trails. We should continue to avoid travel and gatherings, especially those that are happening indoors.”
Appointments and vaccinations are provided at no cost, and under absolute confidentiality rules typical of all medical records, Ferrer added. Vaccines are offered with no questions asked about people’s citizenship, green card, or immigration status, and there are no requirements of government documents of any type.
“Please don’t let your immigration status stand in the way of your getting vaccinated,” she said. “You do not need a government ID.”
Los Angeles now has more than 500 vaccination sites county-wide, at dozens of hospitals, hundreds of pharmacies, and other sites, open to anyone who’s eligible for a vaccine.
“We don’t have enough doses for all those eligible yet,” Ferrer said, but the county is increasing its mobile vaccination units, expanding call center capacity and, recently, reserved 2,000 appointments for community organizations to schedule for clients unable to schedule their own.
Ferrer was enthusiastic about the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, saying it is in no way inferior to the Pfizer and Moderna options, even though it only requires one dose and is more easily stored.
The telebriefing’s final speaker was Jazmin Flores, lead promotora at East Los Angeles Women’s Center whose work includes visiting grocery stores, gas stations, and other local businesses to post informational fliers and doing outreach within homeless communities.
“We can understand our community,” she said as she described a man who was sleeping in his car because he had tested positive for COVID and was scared of infecting his family. As a promotora, she was able to find him shelter.
For more information on promotoras’ work, check out this video video presentation.
Mark Hedin is a reporter for Ethnic Media Services.
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