Bay Area turns to community COVID-19 clinics for hesitant Californians

As the waves of people rolling up their sleeves to get once coveted COVID-19 vaccine shots continue to recede, Bay Area public health officials are ramping up community-focused inoculation clinics and making mass vaccination sites more convenient by doing away with appointments to reel in the most hesitant.

Take the Santa Teresa VTA station in San Jose, for example, where on Monday morning dozens of people lined up to get their shots — the latest of a growing number of vaccination clinics in Santa Clara County that’s open to anyone who wants to walk or drive up on the spur of the moment without an appointment.

In a press release announcing the site’s availability, the VTA says the station presents “an easy way for people to get a vaccine on their way to or from work or school, or wherever they ride transit.”

It’s that kind of flexibility officials hope will get more people to realize it’s now so easy to get a shot there’s almost no excuse not to.

“This vaccine location is just one step forward to getting us out of the pandemic,” San Jose Councilman Sergio Jimenez said at a press conference Monday.

Since it opened two weeks ago, the VTA station site has vaccinated 500-1,000 people 16 and older every day, including more than 1,000 on four separate days.

San Jose, CA – May 03: Bay Area Community Health’s medical assistant Karen Melendez administers COVID-19 vaccines at the walk-up and drive-thru vaccination site at the Santa Teresa Light Rail Station in South San Jose, on Monday, May 3, 2021. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

The county for months has relied on an appointment system at stationary mass vaccination clinics such as Levis’ Stadium, which could accommodate several hundred to thousands of people each day, to take on the bulk of the county’s vaccine rollout. Levi’s today is the only site among more than a dozen in the county that still requires appointments. Last week it inoculated anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people daily, compared to a record high of 12,000 one day in mid-April.

But although community pop-up or “mobile” clinics can’t accommodate nearly as many people — they account for just 6% of the overall 700,000 vaccine doses distributed by the county to date — the county recently has put more focus on adding walk-up clinics in hard-to-reach communities.

Those smaller clinics have played an integral role in reducing the racial disparities among those who have been vaccinated.

County Deputy County Executive Rocio Luna said Monday officials have even begun to discuss potentially scaling back and eventually closing some of the stable, larger vaccination sites this summer.

“You’ll see more mobile vaccination efforts, not less,” Rocio said. “We’re going to continue to double down on our strategy of mobile vaccination and bring on more teams into communities to ensure that we can be at multiple places and have multiple clinics on a weekend in specific census tracks that can go later in the day.”

In Contra Costa County, the number of doses distributed have declined from a seven-day rolling average of about 14,000 in mid-April to 11,000 last week, according to the county dashboard. As of Monday, 31,000 doses had been distributed through mobile clinics serving the general public there.

“Pop-up clinics are an important strategy for providing access to vaccine in communities heavily impacted by the pandemic, particularly communities of color, where there are more barriers to getting vaccinated than there may be in other parts of the county,” county spokesperson Karl Fischer wrote in an email.

Dr. Anand Chabra, COVID-19 vaccination branch chief for San Mateo County Health, said community clinics fill an essential need for people without transportation or internet who can walk up and get a vaccine.

Indeed, for the past month or so, San Mateo County’s vaccination effort had almost solely relied on community pop-up clinics. It wasn’t until last week, when the county’s vaccine dose allotment nearly doubled thanks to a federal distribution program, that officials began offering shots again at the San Mateo County Events Center mass vaccination site.

Where the community clinics were set up for residents in hard-hit communities that had been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, the mass vaccination site was open to anyone and everyone. Demand at both the events center and the community clinics, though, has significantly dropped recently.

The events center, which has the capacity to serve up to about 3,000 people a day, saw closer to 800 show up each day last week, according to Chabra.

“We definitely have well over double the capacity that ended up being utilized,” he said.

Looking to reach more people, county officials are boosting their homebound vaccination program and partnering with churches and faith-based organizations to try to get the word out about the community clinics.

And with the anticipated announcement that the Food and Drug Administration soon intends to authorize the administration of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to adolescents 12 to 15 years old, Chabra said he expects a new surge in demand.

While both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are pushing their clinics on social media and canvassing neighborhoods in advance of their debuts, it’s unclear how successful those efforts will be.

For 33-year-old Marisol Valencia, who was vaccinated at the VTA station Monday, an ad campaign or a strong message from politicians wouldn’t have made a difference.

Until a couple of days ago, Valencia was sure she’d never get the vaccine. But after learning that her aunt Irene was infected with COVID-19 and passed the deadly disease on to her husband and four young daughters, Valencia knew it was serious. The COVID-19 infection was so severe Valencia’s aunt had to be intubated, fed through her nose and transferred to a hospital in San Francisco.

It was the sorrow and fear she saw in her nieces that drove her to change her mind about getting a vaccine.

San Jose, CA – May 03: Marisol Valencia, 33, of San Jose, listens to a medical worker after getting a COVID-19 vaccine at the walk-up and drive-thru vaccination site at the Santa Teresa Light Rail Station in South San Jose, on Monday, May 3, 2021. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 


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