The race to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Los Angeles County despite vaccine shortages is cutthroat and most people don’t even know they’re in the competition.
Over the last year, South Central and East L.A. have weathered the brunt of the pandemic as more Black and Latino residents died from the virus than any other groups in the county. A recent overview map from public health data shows underserved communities are alarmingly passed over in the vaccination rollout despite the best efforts from health agencies.
Instead, white and more affluent residents are in the lead. More than 47% of all white residents and 44% of Asian residents 65 and older in L.A. County have received at least one vaccine dose, while just 34% of Latinos and about 29% of Black residents from the same age group have received their first doses.
Outside the El Sereno Recreation Center in northeast L.A., Wilma Dominguez from Montebello walks back to her car while windmilling her arm. Dominguez, 68, says in the first few weeks it was difficult to find an appointment online due to vaccine shortages, but with her niece’s help over the phone, she found one at the El Sereno walk-up site.
“I feel like I left my anxiety back there,” Dominguez said in Spanish, pointing back at the tent where she got her second Moderna vaccine shot.
Joanne Scheer, 71, from Altadena, also got her second dose at the El Sereno site. She says she would have rather given her doses to a teacher so they could safely get back to school.
“I’m glad I’m done,” said Scheer. “I know that I’m not from the barrio, but there weren’t any places to get vaccinated in our own neighborhood.”
L.A. is not unique in clamoring for more vaccines. A global vaccine shortage is partly to blame for the slow rollout, but so are the historical health inequities that hang over L.A. County. Essential workers, mainly low-income residents from the hardest-hit neighborhoods, continued to work outside the home during the pandemic while more affluent residents worked from home.
The vaccine rollout is like an echo of the pandemic.
In essence, the underserved communities are left again to find their own vaccines while other people with more time and resources reach over their heads.
“It was all predicted,” said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, clinical professor of preventative medicine at Keck School of Medicine at USC. “No one was surprised by the distribution of vaccines we see in California and Los Angeles.”
Klausner said public health officials should have taken a more aggressive approach to give more advantages to the disadvantaged. He calls this a form of reverse structural racism that would have educated and inoculated those residents at higher rates.
“There was no leadership that was working to address how you provide more resources to those neighborhoods,” Klausner said.
Consider that L.A. County is a small nation unto itself with 10 million residents and just one public health agency to oversee the mass inoculation effort. The county has administered nearly 2 million doses. The city of L.A. has also wandered into the public health effort and Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office says the city has administered 394,297 vaccines and an additional 9,300 given at nursing homes and fire stations.
The push to vaccinate has also shifted in recent weeks under the Biden administration, with federal agencies responding to the pandemic and vaccine shortages like a natural disaster and mounting a mass-vaccination hub at California State University, Los Angeles.
State and federal officials tried to tip the scales to reach low-income residents earlier this month, only to have the effort backfire. Specialized codes meant to reserve appointments for the low-income residents at the Romana Gardens Housing Development in Boyle Heights were widely shared and abused by people from outside those communities.
Earlier in the week, Governor Gavin Newsom toured the pop-up site and admitted that the vaccine distribution to the neighborhood was inadequate. He said the site would get deep into the community where people don’t have access to the internet or a car. The doses would come to them.
“This is what we need to be doing more of if we’re going to make real the promotion of equity. We’ve got to deliver on equity,” Newsom said outside the housing projects.
After the Los Angeles Times reported about the code-abuse, Newsom said the loophole would be fixed but didn’t say how many people from out of the community snagged vaccines meant for the local residents.
“We don’t like to see those abuses,” Newsom said during a press briefing on vaccine shortages and distribution equity later in the week.
“I am not surprised … I am disgusted,” said L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis at a recent L.A. County Supervisors board meeting. “I am reminded that this is a society of unequalness, inequity, and I hate to say it discrimination. And the fact of the matter is, the high numbers of people that are dying are still reflected in those communities that are not receiving.”
Even those who have died from COVID-19 continue to go relatively unnoticed amid the clamor over vaccine shortages and health inequities.
Recently, L.A. County Public Health reported more than 800 people died during the winter COVID-19 surge. The data was only now being verified and added to the county’s total death toll. The majority were Latino men over the age of 65 who died in hospitals.
When the winter surge began, Latinos on average represented 3.4 deaths per 100,000 people. By early January, that number spiked to 51 deaths per 100,000 and most recently dropped to about 25 deaths.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that certain groups of people were hit hardest by the pandemic, these communities still struggle to catch up with whiter, richer neighborhoods.
Boyle Heights, a mainly Latino neighborhood near downtown L.A., boasts a population of about 93,000 residents, but according to the latest health data just 5,872 people, or around 9%, have received at least one dose. By comparison, the city of Beverly Hills, with a population of about 34,000, has reported 8,652 residents have received at least one dose or about 29% of all residents.
This is all to say that those with resources have managed to leap to the front of the line while others are at work, unable to take time off to drive to a vaccination site or find the time to get a reservation. If the pandemic shined a harsh light on health inequity in America, then the vaccine rollout shows again how greed has motivated some people.
“It’s health inequity, transportation inequity, social inequity. It’s the perfect storm,” said Dr. Denise Herd, professor of community health sciences at Berkeley Public Health.
Herd said health officials across the county made a serious misstep when they prioritized vaccinations by age groups because large segments of the population who continue to go out and work were left out. A large portion of working-class Latinos are younger than 65 and according to health data, poor, minority areas have a shorter life expectancy than wealthier residents.
“I don’t think health equity has driven the vaccine rollout,” Herd said, referring to the familiar scenario that’s playing out amid vaccine shortages across the country.
Maybe there could have been a better way to get vaccines to the people who need them the most. Private insurer BlueShield of California will take over the state’s vaccination program and use its existing resources to track who is vaccinated.
Every day, more vaccine shipments are trickling into the United States to ease the vaccine shortage. But questions remain about how the current infrastructure will fit into the BlueShield model.
L.A. County Department of Public Health says they have just begun their conversations with BlueShield about “what role they may play in the future.” But they did not elaborate on what that would look like. BlueShield declined to comment on the scope of the partnership.
The public health agency says it will continue to work with its 400 vaccination providers to continue the mass inoculation effort. That includes the St. John’s network of community clinics that serves multiple low-income communities, including in South Central LA.
“L.A. County has done a pretty good job in getting vaccines to the community clinics to support the equitable distribution,” said St. John’s CEO Jim Mangia. “But what happens when that’s centralized with BlueShield? They’re an unelected body. It’s not a government you can advocate. We’re very worried about that centralization.”
California has vaccinated more than 8 million people and 2 million of those were in L.A. County as of Friday. Progress is slow, but steady.
— By Nathan Solis, CNS