San Jose leaders urge state to prioritize COVID-19 vaccine for hardest-hit neighborhoods
San Jose City Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco, center, checks in with Reymundo Espinoza, chief executive officer of the Gardner Family Health Network, and Jessica Paz-Cedillos, executive director of the School of Arts and Culture. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

As COVID-19 continues to devastate communities of color across California, local officials are urging the state to prioritize COVID-19 vaccine for the hardest-hit areas through census tracts.

Last week, state health officials rolled out a new vaccine allocation plan that would be based solely on age in an attempt to accelerate a statewide rollout plan. On Thursday, Santa Clara County health leaders announced a new plan to vaccinate anyone over 65 at any hospital or health clinic.

However, leaders here still worry the state’s revision in vaccine eligibility would affect equitable access.

“My residents have suffered the brunt of COVID-19,” San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco said of East San Jose during a news conference. “I’m urging our governor to help our most vulnerable residents get to the front of the line, not the end.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Wednesday the state is partnering with FEMA to set up two mass vaccination sites in Oakland and East Los Angeles. The goal is to administer 6,000 doses daily in some of the state’s most diverse and poor areas. California is also set to receive an additional 1 million doses from the federal government this week.

Santa Clara County health and racial equity task force and a coalition of 10 lawmakers pushed the governor last week to modify the plan and shift priorities to vulnerable populations first. In Santa Clara County, the Latinx population makes up 25% of population but accounts for half of the infections and 29% of deaths.

Local and state officials representing East San Jose, an area with the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the county, are now asking the state to provide an additional 100,000 doses and make a mass vaccination site available to Santa Clara County.

Shifting strategy to distribute the vaccines based on census tract will allow the county to target communities being impacted the most, Assemblymember Ash Kalra said. It will not affect the county’s “no wrong door” program that was rolled out today.

“It’s not changing the state’s categories,” he added. “It’s giving counties the ability to finetune, using their own data, on who should get prioritized for the vaccine in those categories.”

 

Joining Carrasco and Kalra Thursday was Gilroy Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz. They all represent districts in Santa Clara County with large concentrations of communities of color and service workers.

According to the county’s data, the rate of cases in the five ZIP codes making up East San Jose, Central San Jose and the greater area of Gilroy have all exceeded 10,000 cases for every 100,000 people. Downtown San Jose, with population of 1939, recorded 236 cases as of February. This is higher than the state’s infection rate per capita of 8,278, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and doubles the county’s average.

The hardest-hit ZIP code 95122, with a case rate per 100,000 people of over 12,000, encompasses several census tracts in which up to 95% of residents are of communities of color. Their median household income in 2015 is reported to be just over $50,000.

“It’s not a coincidence that these ZIP codes are largely made up of working-class families who sacrificed their lives daily as essential workers.” Kalra said of his districts in East San Jose. “Our front-line workers and communities of color are not dispensable, and the state must do everything in its power to protect our hardest-hit communities.”

Aurturo Alvarez receives his COVID-19 vaccine at Mexican Heritage Plaza on Feb. 2. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Nationally, the white population has been vaccinated at a much higher rate than the Black and Latinx populations, despite the latter communities have been impacted the most by the pandemic. Santa Clara County has yet to release its demographic data on vaccination rates.

In an effort to stop the spread, Mexican Heritage Plaza has shifted its campus into a clinic to provide COVID-19 testing and administer vaccines to East San Jose. The clinic has administered 1,400 shots within the first three days of operation.

According to Jessica Paz-Cedillos, executive director of the School of Arts and Culture at the plaza, during the weeks following Thanksgiving and the holidays, the clinic tested between 700 to 800 people per week. The positivity rate reached 27%.

“I’m tired of hearing that we’re grateful for the front-line workers, yet they are not being prioritized for the vaccines,” she said during a recent interview. “Our message to our governor is to prioritize through census tract. We are centering equity.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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