COVID-19 vaccination clinic brings hope to East San Jose
Hundreds of people line up to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Mexican Heritage Plaza on Feb. 2. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

The recent arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine at Mexican Heritage Plaza signaled the dawn of a new day in East San Jose, an area hit harder than any other in Santa Clara County by the pandemic.

San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco said it’s critical to have a vaccination site “smack in the middle” of a district with the county’s most COVID-19 cases and related deaths.

“They’re flocking to this center because it’s a trusted center. It’s an accessible center,” Carrasco said. “This may be what saves the community.”

As people lined up for shots Tuesday, Jessica Paz-Cedillos, executive director of the School of Arts and Culture, which is based at the plaza, said she could see peoples’ smiles through their masks and in their eyes. “They were crying because they were so emotional,” she said.

The mood was in sharp contrast to the anxiety people typically have on Wednesdays when COVID-19 testing is done at the site. Paz-Cedillos said people tell her they’re positive and can’t show up for work unless they show a negative test.

Arturo Alvarez receives his COVID-19 vaccine at Mexican Heritage Plaza on Thursday. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Arturo and Teresa Alvarez joined one of five lines of residents eager to receive the vaccine.

Arturo Alvarez said he was a little nervous but didn’t flinch when he received the shot. “It didn’t hurt,” he said smiling triumphantly. “It makes me feel saved.”

His eyes welling up, Arturo Alvarez said he lost family members to the virus, and his brother and cousin are hospitalized. He said he misses seeing his children, including a 10-month-old grandson he and his wife have never held in their arms.

“The vaccine means life and family,” said Teresa Alvarez, who had a kidney transplant two years ago. “It means being able to live and to be with loved ones.”

Provided by Gardner Health Services in partnership with Santa Clara County Public Health Department and the School of Arts & Culture, the walk-up clinic offers shots Tuesdays and Thursdays to about 500 people each day. The first vaccinations were administered Jan. 21.

COVID-19 vaccines are available for people aged 65 and older, as well as health care workers. People must show proof of age or work before receiving a vaccine; distribution starts at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays until they run out.

After receiving their shots, residents wait for 15 to 30 minutes under nurses’ observation to make sure they don’t suffer reactions.

As people return for their second shots in the next two weeks, the site will ramp up to serving 1,000 people both days. About 1,400 people were vaccinated during the site’s first three days of operation. 

Although the city and county provide some financial assistance for testing and vaccination costs, Gardner Family Health Network Chief Executive Officer Reymundo Espinoza said he took a leap and provided staffing before funding for the site was secured.  

“Let’s do it. We’ll find the money later,” he recalled saying.

The nonprofit, he said, received help from the county to provide testing, and nursing students from Gurnick Academy volunteered their time.

Still, it costs $15,000 to $21,000 a week for labor alone, including security guards, janitors and Gardner nurses to run the clinic, according to Paz-Cedillos. Equipment is additional, such as $27,000 for a tent during last week’s rainstorm.

Funding sources include county and city grants as well as donations from foundations. The county provides the vaccines and also gave the Si Se Puede Collective a grant for community outreach and testing at people’s homes, Paz-Cedillos said. 

Organizers says they would like to add additional days but it depends on the availability of vaccinations and staff.

This afternoon, Carrasco, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez and Assemblymember Ash Karla plan to hold a news conference to ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to give vaccine priority to communities impacted the most by the coronavirus pandemic.

Paz-Cedillos said in Santa Clara County that is the Latino immigrant community. According to Santa Clara County Public Health, the 95116 ZIP code, where Mexican Heritage Plaza is located, has 10,827 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, which is about double the county average.

“The percent of folks who had COVID-19 and the percent who died from it are concentrated in five East San Jose ZIP codes,” said Paz-Cedillos. “They make up 31% of the cases in the county.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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