East Palo Alto City Council member Antonio Lopez (right) volunteers at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Ravenswood Family Health Center in East Palo Alto, Calif. on Jan. 30, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the City of East Palo Alto)

Community clinics have helped boost COVID-19 vaccination rates in hard-hit San Mateo County neighborhoods but there are still pockets of people the effort has not yet reached.

In the county’s most vulnerable communities, the vaccination rate was 59 percent as of April 29, while the countywide average is over 70 percent.

At the Ravenswood Family Health Network, vaccine clinics serve residents of East Palo Alto, where vaccination rates have been the lowest of all cities in San Mateo County. As of April 29, 46 percent of East Palo Alto residents had received the vaccine.

Ravenswood has administered over 15,000 vaccine doses so far, according to Chief Executive Officer Luisa Buada. There are clinics in East Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.

Buada said the clinics started off with a bang but demand has since dropped. For example, a surge in demand expected after April 15, when the state opened vaccine eligibility to all Californians, did not happen.

“We know that there are a lot more events (and) a lot more vaccine available all throughout the two counties we work in: San Mateo and Santa Clara,” Buada said.

Some of the reduced demand could be due to the “chilling effect” of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine pause in April, she said. The Johnson & Johnson vaccinations have since resumed and Buada reminded people that the chance of severe side effects from the vaccine is extremely low.

Despite the drop in demand, Buada noted that the community clinics have helped increase vaccination rates in vulnerable and low-income communities.

“Things have come up tremendously because of these efforts of all of us but we definitely want to get to that sweet spot of at least 70 percent vaccinated in all the communities, so we’re trying to figure out how we can reach those pockets of people who haven’t come out,” Buada said.

Buada said Ravenswood has done barrier-free clinics, by providing walk-up vaccinations, plus multilingual outreach and materials. They also moved clinics to later hours so that it’s easier for working people to access.

The next step will be providing mobile vaccination units that go to specific neighborhoods, much like an ice-cream truck.

Though vaccination rates in hard-hit communities have not yet caught up to the countywide average, officials say the gap has not changed that much as vaccinations progress.

Closing the gap has its challenges, according to Srija Srinivasan, Deputy Chief of San Mateo County Health.

“We do expect it to take longer to reach the same level of penetration in our lowest-resource communities,” Srinivasan said. “Some of our residents have much less flexibility with work schedules, caregiving responsibilities [and] transportation barriers and we just know that we need to be able to provide predictable, easy to access, easy to plan for pathways.”

The county’s increased vaccine supply will make it easier to host consistent vaccination sites. Plus, Srinivasan said the county continues to invest in local, targeted approaches to vaccination.

These investments involve working with community organizations and developing partnerships to operate clinics.

Last Friday, the county announced a partnership with Dignity Health, Sequoia Healthcare District and the city of Redwood City to continue a weekly vaccination clinic in North Fair Oaks, one of the communities that has been hard-hit by COVID.

And at the Ravenswood Family Health Network, Facebook grants have funded free transportation to and from vaccine clinics and some groups have provided meals to clinic volunteers. The City of East Palo Alto and community organizations like Belle Haven Action and Nuestra Casa also contribute to vaccination efforts.

With the increased vaccine supply received last week, San Mateo County also reopened its mass vaccination sites.

The county received over 24,000 doses last week, a welcome change from previous weeks, when the county struggled with a low and unpredictable vaccine supply.

As of Sunday, 73 percent of San Mateo County residents had received at least the first dose of the vaccine.

Drive-thru vaccinations will be available at the San Mateo County Event Center Tuesday and Wednesday this week. Appointments are not needed but people can sign up for an appointment through MyTurn.ca.gov if they wish.

For San Mateo County vaccination information, visit https://www.smchealth.org/covid-19-vaccination-program-overview.