State’s COVID-19 vaccine plan hurts Santa Clara County’s neediest
Resident Aurora Flores said receiving the COVID-19 vaccine was essential to her safety. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

A state plan to send more COVID-19 vaccines to at-risk communities could actually harm poor people in Santa Clara County.

Earlier this month, the state began setting aside 40 percent of all vaccines for low-income ZIP codes. The 400-plus ZIP codes are chosen by evaluating their respective “healthy places index,” a function of more than 25 factors including income, health care access, education and access to transportation.

Not one of those ZIP codes is in Santa Clara County.

County health officials said Tuesday that since the change happened, the state has sent fewer doses to the county. This is despite the fact that the county is home to places like East San Jose, a hotspot for COVID-19 infections this past fall, where the $56,000 median household income is well below the state’s median household income.

“This is a flaw in statewide systems that don’t take into account hyper-local determinants of income,” Darcie Green, a longtime East San Jose leader who runs Latinas Contra Cancer. “Vulnerable populations fall through the cracks.”

While the county received 7,500 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, the number of Moderna vaccines was several thousand lower, raising concerns about getting enough second doses to residents who had already received their first dose of the vaccine.

County Executive Jeff Smith and COVID-19 Testing Officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib told county supervisors Tuesday that this could indicate a trend of fewer vaccines getting sent to Santa Clara County over the next few weeks.

Why did Santa Clara County get left out?

Smith explained how the state’s formula erases low-income communities in Santa Clara County.

Many ZIP codes in the Bay Area of made up of more than one census tract, which helps the state track socioeconomic data. But the index the state now relies on for vaccine distribution averages that data out, mixing high-income and low-income communities together because they share a ZIP code.

“The best example is in the East San Jose area, where the flatlands are much different socioeconomically than the highlands,” Smith said. “So because you live next to someone with financial security, you’re ignored (if you’re) someone who doesn’t have financially security.”

County Counsel James Williams was indignant about the state’s changes to vaccine allocations.

“It’s concerning,” Williams said. “We hope the state will reexamine this so these communities are not made invisible by this distribution.”

Santa Clara County supervisors asked Williams to draft a letter to state health officials to ask for a reconsideration of the vaccine equity formula and agreed to sign on.

“The way vaccine is being distributed today negatively impacts the overarching (equity) goals the state has set forward,” said Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

Only ten Bay Area ZIP codes received part of the reserved vaccines for low-income Californians, including 94102 in San Francisco, 94601, 94603, 94621 in Oakland and 94590 in Vallejo, among others. The majority of ZIP codes allocated vaccines under this new system are in the Central Valley and Los Angeles area.

Local responses

Green signed on to a March 3 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office asking him to reconsider using the index to determine where vaccines would go. Members of Catholic Charities, Gardner Health Services and Community Health Partnership also signed the letter.

Green said the state needs begin fixing the damage immediately and revert back to the system that was working. Until this point, Green said, the county has made it a priority to serve residents most negatively-impacted by COVID-19 in the South Bay, and it’s done well serving them.

“Neighborhoods that have been disproportionately hit by the pandemic and who desperately need access to vaccines as soon as possible were unjustly left off the list,” Green said.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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