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Virtual town hall addresses COVID-19 vaccine concerns in O.C.’s Asian American community

Chart labeled "How protective are the COVID-19 vaccines?" with Dr. Susan S. Huang
Dr. Susan S. Huang, UC Irvine School of Medicine professor of infectious diseases and medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention, explains the safety of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines on Thursday during a virtual town hall about the vaccine concerns and Orange County distribution plans.
(Screenshot by Agnes Constante)

The Orange County Health Care Agency hopes to have the majority of the county’s approximately 3.2 million residents vaccinated by July 4.

“That’s the day for O.C. to celebrate when we’ll perhaps be able to go back to a near normal situation,” agency director Dr. Clayton Chau said Thursday during a virtual town hall hosted for the county’s Asian American community, which constitutes about 20% of O.C.’s population.

That date, however, is dependent on how many residents are willing to take the vaccine, he said.

The OC Asian Pacific Islander Taskforce, along with the healthcare agency and UCI Cancer Center, hosted the town hall to address concerns in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community about vaccine side effects and distribution plans.

More than 200,000 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in Orange County. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have posted lower infection rates compared to other racial and ethnic groups, deputy county health officer Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong said. But she noted that while Asians account for about 11% of positive cases, they represent about 19% of deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

“When you look at other ethnicities, typically the percent of death rates is very similar to the positive case rates for the ethnicity. But here you see in Asians it’s significantly higher than the actual percent of positive cases,” she said. “So that’s concerning to me, and we’re going to continue our efforts to vaccinate.”

The county is prioritizing the vaccination of healthcare workers and residents ages 65 and older. The eligibility was established after a review of COVID-19 hospital patients found that more than 70% of hospital beds were occupied by those aged 61 and older, Chinsio-Kwong said.

She added that more than 600,000 residents may be eligible for the vaccine based on criteria outlined by the county. To date, however, O.C. has received approximately 183,000 vaccines and had administered about 56,000 doses as of Jan. 8, she said.

To reach its July target, the county plans to establish five “super PODS” (points of dispensing) that will have the capacity to vaccinate 7,500 to 8,000 people per day, Chau said. The first super POD was launched Wednesday at Disneyland, where more than 3,000 residents were vaccinated on its first day, Chinsio-Kwong said.

O.C. is also developing mobile PODs, each equipped to vaccinate 1,000 people, to reach residents who may have trouble traveling to super POD sites, Chinsio-Kwong said.

Chau and Dr. Susan S. Huang, UC Irvine School of Medicine professor of infectious diseases and medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention, clarified misconceptions about the vaccine during the town hall.

One concern Chau addressed was whether or not one vaccine works better for certain ethnic groups. He said neither one is superior to the other for different groups, citing the nearly 95% effectiveness of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Huang addressed doubts about safety by explaining that the vaccines don’t affect genes and only stay in the body for a short period of time. She added that the 95% effectiveness of both vaccines far exceed the 50% effectiveness the FDA was willing to consider last year.

“We could not have dreamed up a better pair of vaccines,” she said.” You couldn’t have gotten anyone to take bets that a 95% vaccine would be available in six months.”

Another concern in the community is that there weren’t many Asians, pregnant people or those with immunocompromising diseases in the vaccine trials. Huang said the main thing to look for is if the vaccine works in humans and in the elderly, who have difficulty creating an immune response for some vaccines.

The Anaheim super POD can distribute 7,000 daily doses of the vaccine and ramp up as more supplies become available. But eligible residents, including those over 65, must make an appointment first.

“We don’t see a big difference in the ability to make an immune response if you’re Black or Asian or Hispanic,” she said. “It is largely, dominantly, an age difference.”

Both vaccines have shown to perform just as well in younger and older groups, she added.

A prevalent question among those who tuned into Thursday’s event dealt with the accessibility of Othena, a platform that can be downloaded on a smartphone and accessed online that residents can use to schedule a vaccination appointment, particularly for the elderly.

Othena, currently available in English, will be made available in Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Spanish, and public libraries will be available to assist people who may not have smartphones or internet access, Chau said. He added that the county will soon ask senior centers to help with Othena.

Ellen Ahn, executive director of Korean Community Services, said the OC API Taskforce will also be working to pinpoint areas where seniors typically gather, such as churches, so it can go to those locations to assist them with using the platform. The taskforce is working to ensure information about COVID-19 is made available in Asian and Pacific Islander languages.

“We are doing our best to be on the frontlines, to make sure equity runs through the entire vaccination and COVID response process,” she said.

Ahn urged community members who have a primary care physician or other means of accessing the vaccine to pursue those avenues rather than reaching out to community-based groups. She said these groups serving Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are seeking to reserve the limited vaccines they receive for the neediest and most vulnerable, including those who are undocumented and speak limited English.

“One of the areas we’re focused on are really underserved, very low income, limited English-speaking Asian and Pacific Islander older adults,” Foo said. “It’s very hard for them to access healthcare. So this is one of the ways we’re trying to make sure that we’re getting the information out.”

Residents are encouraged to visit occovid19.ochealthinfo.com for more information about COVID-19 testing and the vaccine.

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