State and local officials on Monday called for increased COVID-19 vaccinations in East Palo Alto, which has the lowest percentage of vaccinated residents in San Mateo County.
During a news conference at Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto, elected officials urged the state and federal government to prioritize East Palo Alto residents by creating a mobile or mass vaccination site to cater to city residents.
East Palo Alto Councilmember Antonio Lopez said that COVID-19 has been a “wake up call” to the structural inequalities in the Bay Area, in which some people are well-off while others live paycheck to paycheck.
“An aggressive vaccination rollout is what the fight for racial equity and social justice is and looks like in 2021,” Lopez said.
As of Saturday, 153,963 San Mateo County residents had been vaccinated, which is 24% of the county’s population 16 years and older who would ultimately be eligible for the vaccine.
In East Palo Alto, 11.7% of eligible residents have been vaccinated despite the community having one of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases in the county, with 1,425 cases per 10,000 residents.
Some cities have had similarly high COVID-19 case rates but higher vaccination rates. North Fair Oaks has had 1,155 COVID-19 cases per 10,000 and 15.3% of its eligible population is vaccinated so far. Other cities like Atherton have had low COVID-19 case rates but almost half of its population has been vaccinated.
Lopez called for increased vaccinations to put East Palo Alto on par with neighboring communities, as their residents are the “economic backbone of Silicon Valley.”
“This isn’t just about a moral plea that setting aside greater vaccines for the most marginalized of our region is quote-unquote ‘the right thing to do.’ It is also economic. We are your grocery workers, your auto body shop workers, your cleaners, your food caterers, your construction workers,” Lopez said. “And if this community continues to get sick, so does the bottom dollar.”
Along with Lopez, speakers at the news conference included former East Palo Alto Mayor Larry Moody, state Sen. Josh Becker, San Mateo County Board of Supervisors President David Canepa, and Ana Maria Pulido, a trustee with the Ravenswood City School District.
Pulido said that increased vaccinations in the city could change the conversation around school reopening as teachers would feel safer to return to school. The Ravenswood City School District has conducted distance learning since the start of the pandemic, with only small groups and some learning hubs for in-person learning.
Some of Ravenswood’s in-person school staff and learning hub staff were vaccinated last Wednesday, along with other school staff from districts that were prioritized under a plan developed with San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee.
“The vaccination is our lifeline to resume to some level of normalcy,” Pulido said. “Many of our students don’t have the proper support system at home to successfully navigate the distance learning model. And I don’t think this is news to anyone when I say distance learning is not working for the vast majority of our students.”
Officials said that the low vaccination numbers in East Palo Alto could be due to limited access to vaccination sites.
Through healthcare providers, mass vaccination sites and local clinics, San Mateo County is currently prioritizing individuals in Phase 1A and 1B of the state’s vaccination tiers, which includes health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, residents 65 and older and some essential workers including teachers and child care workers, first responders and food and agriculture workers.
While East Palo Alto is home to many essential workers who are now eligible for the vaccine, Becker said that more needs to be done given that some people may face barriers to getting the vaccine.
“It’s one thing to prioritize them technically. It’s another thing to actually deliver their vaccine,” Becker said, adding that it is harder for essential workers to get to mass vaccination sites and they may have less time to schedule and get to their appointments.
Becker called for a mobile vaccination site in East Palo Alto, similar to one of the county’s pilot programs which vaccinated 300 farmworkers on Feb. 25. The county’s health department also works with smaller clinics and has set up vaccination sites in Daly City and Half Moon Bay. These are in addition to the mass vaccination sites that have taken place at the San Mateo County Event Center and San Francisco International Airport in the past.
However, these clinics are only available when the county receives sufficient doses from the state. While the county has the infrastructure to increase rollout, they are limited by the short and sometimes inconsistent supply from the state.
“No doses, no distribution,” Canepa said. “We need to ensure that we have consistency from the state and federal government. We can vaccinate everyone. The problem is the numbers shift every week and that puts us in a tough position.”
With increased vaccine doses and better communication from the state around how many vaccine doses are expected, Canepa said the county could scale up its vaccination efforts at mass vaccination sites. He said the county is working to establish a mass vaccination site for the south county next week. Canepa also suggested that East Palo Alto residents be prioritized for the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which got emergency use authorization from the FDA on Saturday.
San Mateo County will join the rest of California’s counties under Blue Shield’s new vaccine distribution plan, which employs the state’s myturn.ca.gov vaccine eligibility sign-up tool to allow people to book appointments. San Mateo County is in the third wave of Blue Shield’s new distribution system along with most other Bay Area counties.
For more information on COVID-19 vaccinations in San Mateo County, including vaccination data, visit https://www.smchealth.org/covidvaccine.