Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants live in Contra Costa County, but many are wary of going to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Concord-based nonprofit Monument Impact, which serves immigrant, refugee and low-income people largely in the Monument Boulevard corridor, is one of the groups trying to reach out to people to go to a clinic to get vaccinated, a proven way to protect against a virus that has killed more than 750 people in Contra Costa County and more than 58,000 statewide as of this week.
One of the ways they are doing so is via their promotores de salud, community health advocates who interact with the undocumented community and provide information about the vaccines and how to get them.
Azucena Torres is one such promotora and holds exercise classes in parks around Concord with community members, although during the pandemic the classes have been held via Zoom.
“There is fear, there is confusion, there’s a lot of questions,” Torres said. “People are not sure if they want to get it.”
Torres, who has received the COVID-19 vaccine herself, said she talks about her own experiences and provides other information about the vaccine and how to get it.
“They feel more comfortable coming to us or hearing from us because we are part of the community,” she said. “It’s more believable from us. I am an example … they know me as a friend, they know me as a neighbor, as someone they can trust.”
Many people in the undocumented community are worried about cooperating with the government and possibly having their status revealed, a longstanding issue and one government agencies and nonprofits have had to address in other recent outreach campaigns such as participation in the 2020 U.S. Census.
Contra Costa County does not ask about someone’s immigration status for appointments related to the vaccine or any other medical issue, but Debra Ballinger, executive director of Monument Impact, said other questions that are asked, such as for insurance information or other personal details, can still deter people from getting the vaccine.
“Once you get asked, people will drop off the call,” Ballinger said. “That’s enough to discourage participation.”
COVID-19 has also forced promotores like Torres to address misinformation people are receiving from social media or other sources.
“Don’t listen to Facebook, don’t listen to your neighbor,” Torres said. “Someone sees a video of someone having a reaction, then they claim, ‘Look what the vaccine does to you.'”
The county’s role
Contra Costa County this week became the first county in California to open vaccine eligibility to everyone ages 16 and up and is ramping up its efforts to get vaccines in the arms of hard-to-reach communities like the undocumented.
How many undocumented people currently live in the county is unclear, although a 2017 report by the nonprofit think tank Public Policy Institute of California estimated that about 77,500 undocumented people live in Contra Costa County.
The county has a public dashboard of COVID-19 data, but immigration status is not among the data since the county does not ask about that for appointments related to the COVID-19 vaccine or any other medical issue.
The county health department Contra Costa Health Services has hired more than a dozen of its own ambassadors to do community education and outreach as well as on-the-spot registration for appointments, according to Gilbert Salinas, chief equity officer with CCHS.
“Our goal is really to work with our partner organizations in the community, we know that they do this best,” Salinas said.
Reaching people who don’t have Internet access to make a vaccine appointment online is another priority. The county is launching walkup clinics at the Richmond Auditorium and Bay Point Family Health Clinic next week and has increased capacity at its mobile clinics, he said.
For those who do sign up for vaccines online, the county is prioritizing those in the lowest quartile of the state’s Healthy Places Index, a data tool developed by the Public Health Alliance of Southern California that compares infection rates in different census tracts.
Getting vaccinated is free of charge, but how and who to pay for vaccination outreach will be a topic of budget discussions in Contra Costa County in the coming weeks.
CCHS director Anna Roth and county Employment and Human Services director Kathy Gallagher spoke at a budget town hall Wednesday organized by the Contra Costa Budget Justice Coalition, with members of many local nonprofits joining on the Zoom call.
The department heads discussed large drops in revenue to the county due to the pandemic shuttering businesses, but also federal funding set to arrive soon via the American Rescue Plan Act recently approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden.
Contra Costa County will be receiving more than $220 million from that bill that can be used to address coronavirus-related health or economic impacts.
The county Board of Supervisors will hold public hearings on the budget April 20 and is set to approve the final budget in May.
“We have some funding challenges but also have a lot of opportunities,” Gallagher said. “We really want to focus on collaboration and partnership.”
The county has provided funding to some nonprofits for outreach work, including La Clinica de La Raza, a health care organization with a site in Concord.
But others are hoping for help from the county along with the usual nonprofit funding sources like grants and individual donors to pay for the work to get undocumented people vaccinated.
“This community is essential workers, they’ve made everybody’s lives better while their own lives have not been so good,” said Ballinger, the Monument Impact executive director. “Restaurant workers, gardeners, childcare workers, house cleaners, all of those workers really have served our greater community in Contra Costa.”
Information on vaccines in Contra Costa County and how to sign up for an appointment can be found at https://www.coronavirus.cchealth.org/.
More information on resources for undocumented immigrants in the county can be found in English at https://813dcad3-2b07-4f3f-a25e-23c48c566922.filesusr.com/ugd/84606e_611b5e830d204fd7b7545b6fc63b64cd.pdf and in Spanish at https://813dcad3-2b07-4f3f-a25e-23c48c566922.filesusr.com/ugd/84606e_a4641aeaa4a74962939400406062deab.pdf.