Vaccine equity in South LA
A crisis of access within the crisis
Isabell Rivera, OW Contributor | 3/31/2021, 4:05 p.m.
During the pandemic, residents in South Los Angeles and East LA have seen high numbers of infections. Latinos and African-Americans have died at a higher rate from COVID-19 complications than Asians and Whites. However, when it came to vaccine distribution, African-American and Latino communities were served last, due to a combination of factors.
Throughout March, South LA non-profit Community Coalition (CoCo) partnered with Charles Drew University to provide community-based support in coordination with various government organizations to vaccinate over 4,478 residents at Jesse Owens Park.
Chief operating officer at Community Coalition, Corey Matthews, believes that the COVID-19 vaccine became a crisis on its own.
Misinformation is being distributed which causes vaccine hesitation and there is limited access in the community for many residents who are eligible to receive the vaccine.
“It’s enough work trying to get information about the vaccine to folks who express a healthy level of skepticism,” Matthews said. “Still, it’s very disheartening to find that those who need it most — Black and Brown folks, in the most impacted areas, with the highest rates of transmission, hospitalizations, and death rates due to COVID — are just beginning to see real access to the vaccine ... two months later.”
Due to this lack of access, CoCo and other community-based non-profit organizations have come forward to get involved and fight for vaccine equity for community members who were systematically being shut out
due to miscommunication, impractical registration processes, unfair “eligibility” policing, and digital divides. Also, South LA received an overwhelming amount of “vaccine chasers,” who are predominantly young and White, with the necessary resources to travel in the hope to find “leftover” vaccines.
“They were laissez-faire slapped on the wrist for not meeting eligibility requirements but they were not turned away from vaccine doses, and no one ever pointed to why there were leftover vaccines in the first place,” Matthews said. “Equity would mean that anyone who has to go into work, especially in an hourly wage environment, should be deemed ‘essential.’ From a community-wide perspective, not many of us are in employment sectors that were able to shift to remote and virtual work. The ability to do so provided an essential layer of protection from exposure to coronavirus.”
Equity should also apply for all family members living together in a multi-generational household, according to Matthews. Many households have members who are returning to work, or have individuals working in retail or a warehouse. The vaccination eligibility criteria are addressed to specific categories only and therefore leave out a good portion of the population, purposely.
Additionally, vaccine pop-up sites run on tight schedules, such as only during the day, which makes it difficult for working adults and their families. They face the challenge of deciding to get vaccinated or get paid.
“I often joked that getting a vaccine in California is like ‘The Hunger Games.’ Finding a slot is the public health equivalent of getting into the hottest club in town on a Friday night--you have to know somebody who knows somebody,” Matthews said. “Thus, social capital provides some with access to vaccine sites, ‘private’ appointment links, and ‘heads-ups’ on leftover vaccines, overwhelmingly going to affluent White Angelenos. This leaves more impoverished Black and Brown residents to fend for themselves. Or not.
And because we don’t have that same access to the vaccine, we are now burdened with permanently navigating a widespread, media-driven narrative that we don’t want vaccines which is unfair and untrue.”
To promote herd immunity and have everyone on board, it’s important to deploy equitable, community-centered models for vaccination, as well as to provide sensitivity and warmth to make community members feel comfortable since the process of vaccination is like any other shot and involves a needle. Another important aspect is to communicate with the community in ways that resonate with them and provide them with an easy registration process and extended hours of operation for vaccine sites for those who don’t have flexible jobs or limited child- and eldercare options.
“Most importantly, if we elevate equity as the public health frame, let’s get the vaccines to the communities that bore the brunt of the raging pandemic without questions, eligibility policing, and disinviting processes,” Matthews suggested. “That would be equity in action.”