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Gov. Gavin Newsom recently praised San Diego both for getting as many vaccines in arms as it has and for reaching communities hit hardest by the pandemic, calling the city a state leader in vaccinating equity.
But that means the rest of the state’s communities of color are still in dire need of a life-saving vaccine.
“The rich and the powerful tend to be first in line,” said Christian Ramers, an infectious disease specialist at San Diego State University who oversees clinical programs at Family Health Centers of San Diego.
And the rich and the powerful tend to be White. That inequity is starkly apparent in vaccine data kept by San Diego County.
As of March 30, 48 percent of San Diegans 16 and older who got at least one dose of the vaccine are White. Twenty percent are Hispanic or Latino. The county’s population is 45 percent White. But 34 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino.
While Whites are getting vaccines the fastest, “they need it the least,” Ramers said.
Latinos are resoundingly suffering the most with 120,000 positive COVID-19 cases in San Diego County. Whites have about 60,000 cases. More Latinos have died from COVID-19 than any other racial or ethnic group.
Ramers said it takes extra effort to reach them, though. There’s deep-seeded suspicion of government in these communities like Barrio Logan and Logan Heights, where the federal government has severed the neighborhoods with interstate highways, among a litany of other historic policy decisions that disenfranchise non-White populations.
Ramers said while mass vaccination sites, like the superstations at the Grossmont Center mall and a former Sears in Chula Vista, work well for getting as many shots in arms as possible, the “Hunger Games” approach actually drives disparity. Those sites tend to favor those who are more nimble with the internet and have resources to drive over a dozen miles to reach an unfilled appointment at a moment’s notice.
“What it takes to avoid that is shoe-level, door-to-door campaign, and keeping others from swooping in and taking the slots,” Ramers said.
And that’s precisely what Barrio Logan did last week.
Thanks to a change in tactic by President Joe Biden’s administration, the federal government started sending more vaccines directly to federally funded clinics like Family Health Centers of San Diego. In anticipation of a 2,000-vaccine shipment Saturday, the community wrangled groups of volunteers to knock on doors and sign up as many people living in or near the 92113 ZIP code as possible.
The center has a vaccination site set up in its parking lot, where anyone with an appointment can get one. But “a lot of people outside the neighborhood were taking them,” Anthony White, the center’s director of community and government relations, told the Barrio Logan Community Planning Group during a March meeting.
In just an hour of door-knocking on Wednesday, volunteers Soraya Morales and Marcela Mercado reached over a dozen residents at their doorsteps, including elderly residents who didn’t even know the vaccine was available.
That included 62-year-old Marta Barraza. As of March 15, she was eligible to get a vaccine but thought they were still only reserved for doctors, nurses and teachers – who, she argued, should have them before herself.
Many things about the pandemic brought her to tears as she stood on her porch, giving the volunteer her information for an appointment.
The locked doors at Church of the Immaculate Conception in Old Town hurt her the most.
“I had a couple of things to say to God but I couldn’t. So I was looking up at the sky to talk to him,” Barraza said, reflecting on the pandemic year.
The church doors finally opened that Wednesday, and Barraza, wearing a mask, was able to go to mass.
“I wanted to go to the altar, where we have a big figure of Jesus, and hold him, that’s how happy I was to see him,” she said.
David Alvarez, a former San Diego city councilman from the neighborhood, helped organize the door-knockers.
“This area has been the hardest hit and falling behind on vaccination,” Alvarez told about 10 volunteers on Wednesday.
He pushed them to get phone numbers and names of potential patients to secure a spot in line. The health center reserved a special phone line for neighborhood patients so residents, especially elderly ones, didn’t have to use a computer to sign up.
It was successful, he said. After four days of campaigning, volunteers visited over 4,000 houses and registered a quarter of them.
Morales and Mercado signed up grandmothers for appointments through the gates of their homes or as they carted groceries down the street. Mercado reached Deysi Solis as she was leaving her house with her two children.
“I was positive for COVID earlier in the year,” Solis said. “We wanted a vaccine but we heard there weren’t any.”