Should East San Jose vaccination site reopen?
After receiving COVID-19 vaccines at Mexican Heritage Plaza in February 2021, residents waited 15-30 minutes under medical supervision. File photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

At least one city official believes a major vaccination site in East San Jose was shut down too early, but local community leaders aren’t so sure.

Rolando Bonilla, chair of the San Jose Planning Commission who nearly died of COVID-19, is sounding the warning call about the growing number of positive coronavirus infections in East San Jose and urging Santa Clara County to reopen Mexican Heritage Plaza as a vaccination site.

“You’re talking about a community that has legitimate concerns about the vaccine,” Bonilla told San José Spotlight, noting that some people fear the lingering effects of the shot may make it difficult for them to attend work for several days. “We need that institutional approach, a place where everybody knows they can go.”

The vaccination site at Mexican Heritage Plaza, run by Gardner Health Services in partnership with the county, opened in late January and closed on June 30. At the height of its use, the plaza served close to 800 to 900 people per day. The number of daily visitors dwindled to a fraction of that amount by June.

Gardner representatives were not immediately available for comment.

School of Arts and Culture Event Coordinator Jan Uchiyama looks out at the empty courtyard on the last day of the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Mexican Heritage Plaza on June 30, 2021. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

“The Mexican Heritage Plaza vaccination site was an important part of the county’s efforts to reaching the Latinx community for many months, but despite extensive efforts to ensure the community knew vaccinations were available at that location, the number of community members going to the plaza to be vaccinated declined to as few as 10 people total per day,” a Santa Clara County official told San José Spotlight in an email.

The official added that Santa Clara County has vaccinated 75% of people aged 50 and older in the Latinx community, compared to 70% of the white population. Workers in the outreach program have knocked on doors at more than 180,000 homes and engaged almost 38,000 businesses, with significant focus in East San Jose and Gilroy.

But there is still cause for concern in East San Jose, where COVID-19 ran rampant for much of the pandemic and where several neighborhoods still suffer high rates of infections. The 95122 ZIP code had the highest rate of COVID-19 infections in Santa Clara County last year, and that’s still true today.

As of July, 8,267 people tested positive for COVID-19 in the 95122 ZIP code. For perspective, that’s an infection rate of 14,308 people out of 100,000—by far the most severe rate in the county.

Mexican Heritage Plaza, located in the Alum Rock neighborhood in the 95116 ZIP code, has the fifth highest infection rate in the county, with 6,922 cases.

A study released last month by EMC Research found that some residents in Santa Clara County are reluctant to get vaccinated, partly due to fear of unknown long-term effects of the vaccines.

Santa Clara County has seen substantial progress in getting people vaccinated. As of July 26, about 83.6% of county residents over the age of 12 are inoculated with at least one dose, and more than three-quarters of eligible residents are fully vaccinated.

Not everyone shares Bonilla’s belief that reopening a major vaccination center makes the most sense for reaching the remaining unvaccinated population in East San Jose.

Jessica Paz-Cedillos, executive director of School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, told San José Spotlight her organization is proud that more than 25,000 residents came to the plaza for their shots. The site had the capacity to deliver 2,000 shots per week, but fewer than 300 people visited the site during its last weeks of operation.

“Rather than reopening the plaza as a site, we encourage people to take advantage of the other walk-up sites that remain open in San Jose and the rest of the county,” Paz-Cedillos said in an email. “However, we also recognize that there are still people in our community who remain unvaccinated and that the number of people getting sick is increasing.”

She noted that the Si Se Puede Collective is doing door-to-door outreach to answer questions and make appointments at sites around the county for those who have yet to be vaccinated.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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