Despite months of alarm, many O.C. Latinos are still unvaccinated
In Orange County, Latino residents are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 at much lower rates than their white counterparts, prompting experts and advocates to call for a more equitable rollout.
Just over 3% of Latinos in the county have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with 10% of white residents, according to county statistics.
About 6% of the county’s Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and less than 1% of the Black population has been at least partially vaccinated.
Similar disparities in vaccination rates exist statewide and in neighboring Los Angeles County.
“People are being left out and left behind,” said Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento. “The way I see it, relief delayed is relief denied.”
The low vaccination rates among Latino residents can be attributed to the difficulties of making and traveling to appointments, in addition to suspicion of the vaccine among some people, said officials and advocates for communities hard hit by the pandemic.
The state’s universal eligibility for those 65 and older also creates an imbalance, since those in Black and Latino communities skew younger.
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The disparities are continuing despite efforts to reach underserved areas through clinics set up at schools and senior centers. The state this month shifted 40% of its available vaccine supply to underserved areas, including Santa Ana.
But elected officials and experts say inequities in the vaccine rollout set Latinos behind from the beginning — and data shows they’ve been struggling to catch up ever since.
As COVID-19 took hold across California, communities of color were especially devastated.
More Latinos become infected with the coronavirus, they were hospitalized more and they died at higher rates than any other ethnic group, according to state data.
Bernadette Boden-Albala, a member of the O.C. Health Care Agency’s vaccine task force, said the data should have made it clear to officials early on that vaccinations must reach Latinos and other communities of color first.
The findings provide evidence of deeply rooted health inequities that exist even in affluent counties, said Boden-Albala, a professor of public health and the founding dean of the Program in Public Health at UC Irvine.
“COVID-19 is the disease of disparity,” she said. “If anything, what we’ve learned from this horrible epidemic is there’s got to be a paradigm shift in public health — what it stands for and how to approach it so we don’t have health equity issues again.”
Latino residents make up 34% of Orange County’s population but only 14% of the people who got at least one shot between Dec. 15 and March 15, county statistics show.
Whites are overrepresented at 40% of the population and 44% of those with at least one shot.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are also slightly overrepresented at 22% of the population and 24% of the vaccinated.
Black residents are 2% of the population and 1% of the vaccinated.
People 65 and older, all of whom are eligible, are vaccinated at higher rates in Orange County’s wealthier, whiter areas than in lower income communities of color, county maps show.
Cities where 75% or more of senior citizens have received at least one dose of the vaccine include Laguna Hills, Laguna Woods, Aliso Viejo, Laguna Niguel and portions of Irvine and Lake Forest.
In Santa Ana, 63% to 69% of seniors have gotten at least one shot.
In Anaheim, the vaccination rate among seniors is 56% to 62%, county maps show.
Statewide, the numbers are similar — 19% of vaccines have gone to Latinos, while they are nearly 40% of the population.
In L.A. County, where Latinos are nearly half the population, they are a quarter of the people who have received at least one dose, according to county data.
Even as the daily toll of COVID-19 deaths declines, Latino residents of Los Angeles County are still dying at three times the rate of white residents.
In early January, Orange County set up the first of its large-scale vaccination sites at Disneyland in Anaheim, an area hard-hit by the pandemic. But many Latino residents did not head there.
The county’s Othena vaccination portal rolled out in January only in English, despite a $1.2-million contract with the county to provide Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean translations.
A flood of registrations crashed the website. The process was impossible for people who lacked a computer or internet. Because of the scarcity of slots, booking an appointment required hours in front of a computer refreshing the screen.
Many Latino people do not work behind a desk, making it harder for the younger generation to help their elders, said Anaheim City Council Member Jose Moreno.
“Data shows generally that Latinos tend to be hourly wage earners, so you don’t have the luxury to sit there all day and try to figure out how to get grandpa or your dad or even yourself vaccinated,” he said. “It automatically makes things more difficult.”
In February, Latino Health Access and other community groups partnered with the county, cities and schools to set up community pods inside gathering spaces like school gymnasiums and senior centers.
Bringing people to the sites, in regions with low vaccination rates, requires a localized approach — calling residents or knocking on doors to help them sign up.
“We’ve been tracking the data to see if we’ve been making any improvements, and we have seen some improvements with the senior populations of the different ethnicities,” said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, the county’s deputy health officer.
Many of the community pods can vaccinate more than 300 residents a day, but getting people in the door is becoming more of a challenge.
Advocates say they’re more frequently hearing from those who are hesitant to take the vaccine.
A survey conducted by the Orange County Health Care Agency late last year indicated that women, people ages 35 to 54, Latino and Black people and residents of some cities, including Anaheim and Santa Ana, showed the lowest willingness to be vaccinated.
In January, the county expanded an existing multimillion-dollar contract with Costa Mesa marketing consultant Idea Hall to develop a plan to reach out to communities where vaccine skepticism is high.
The plan, which includes placing fliers in places like buses and grocery stores, and video presentations featuring community influencers, has not yet been rolled out.
Advocates and County Supervisor Doug Chaffee are hopeful that as more people are vaccinated at the community clinics, their example will help combat lingering hesitancy.
“Once we have more people in the community going to the neighborhood pods and seeing that the process is easy and effortless, we are going to have more people wanting to get vaccinated,” said Chaffee, who represents Fullerton, La Habra, Brea, Placentia and portions of Anaheim and Buena Park.
Eloisa Campos was among the Latino residents eager to get vaccinated.
On a wet, chilly Monday morning in Santa Ana this month, she arrived at Villa Intermediate School for her second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
The 70-year-old Santa Ana resident slipped off her damp black velvet track suit jacket, pulled up the purple sleeve of her T-shirt and stared straight ahead as the needle pierced her skin.
First came the burn of the shot, then a sense of relief.
“I’m excited,” she said in Spanish as she sat on a plastic chair in the school’s gymnasium in case she had an allergic reaction. “I finally have my two doses. I’m going to be safe.”
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