Southeast LA communities pushing for more COVID-19 vaccine access as one of the hardest hit areas

Despite high COVID-19 case and death rates, southeast L.A. communities have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the county. Community leaders are asking the White House to help expand the vaccine resources.
CUDAHY, Calif. (KABC) -- As a leader in the southeast Los Angeles community, Denise Diaz knows what the COVID-19 numbers show in her community.

"I'm getting emotional, because our people are dying," Diaz said through what she called "tears of frustration."

The city of South Gate, where Diaz is a councilmember, has lost more than 200 people to COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, as of March 1. That puts the city, along with other surrounding southeast L.A. cities and communities, among some of the hardest hit communities in the county.

"But I want to emphasize it's not a number. It's a loved one we lost," Diaz said.

That's why Diaz and Lynwood Mayor Marisela Santana, along with 12 other elected officials in southeast Los Angeles communities, are in talks with the White House to expand vaccine distribution efforts in their area that has been hit hard by COVID-19. They are asking for a large-scale vaccination site and more mobile vaccination sites.

"I think it's important to acknowledge that this administration is making sure that we have a seat at the table," Santana said. "Because we know how rare that is."

COVID-19 vaccine inequities LA County

Communities in southeast L.A. have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the county, despite being some of the harder hit areas, according to an ABC7 analysis of vaccine data from L.A. County.

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For example, the unincorporated community of Florence-Firestone has just 6.8% of its population vaccinated, and has an all-time COVID-19 death rate of just under 300 per 100,000 people, and an all-time case rate of more than 20,000 per 100,000 people as of March 1.

Cudahy has 7% of its population vaccinated and a death rate of 226 per 100,000 people, and a case rate of more than 19,000 per 100,000 people.

Meanwhile, Bel Air has a death rate of about 24 per 100,000 people, just two deaths over the course of the whole pandemic, and a case rate of just over 4,300. More than a third of its population is vaccinated.

Overall, communities with higher case rates have lower vaccination rates.

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"This is not the world we want to see. And it's not what we're trying to build," said Dr. Naman Shah, a medical epidemiologist with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Some of this inequity could be explained by the fact that these richer, whiter communities with higher vaccination rates tend to have a higher percentage of residents over 65. Not all communities have the same share of people eligible to get the vaccine.

Data isn't available showing exactly how many people are eligible in each community, but according to county data, even among those 65 and older, poorer communities have lower vaccination rates.

Both the unincorporated community of Florence-Firestone and the City of Cudahy have less than a third of people over 65 vaccinated with at least one dose. In Bel Air, the rate is double that of Cudahy at about two-thirds. Beverly Hills has nearly three-quarters of its over 65 population vaccinated.

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"It is very frustrating that we're having to prove the eligibility of our communities," said Santana.

"We get it that this was put together at the last minute, but if the numbers are there, if our numbers are that high, then why not stop the bleeding at the wound?" she said.

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Vaccine tiers: Are they working?

Dr. Shah hopes now that eligibility has opened up for other essential workers, like those working in grocery stores, there will be more equity as many people living in southeast L.A. are part of this tier.

So, we asked: does that potentially expose a flaw in how the county is determining who gets to get the vaccine first?

"You know, it's an interesting question. So, I think this has been, obviously it's a national debate, not just a local issue, and there is risk of exposure, risk of outcome, equity concerns, and balancing all of those," Dr. Shah said, adding that a scarce supply is may be part of what is driving the limitations on who can get the vaccine.

Mayor Santana said she isn't against the system the county has put together.

"I'm just, I'm upset about the people in our communities who are part of that eligibility, not getting the access to the vaccine, like other communities are," she said.

Overall, Councilmember Diaz said much of the frustration comes from feeling that the county health department isn't doing enough to expand the vaccination effort in southeast L.A.

"At the end of the day, every single county resident needs to be vaccinated, deserves to be vaccinated. And it's a really big challenge between communities, between the representatives, between the public health community and the health system," Dr. Shah said.

In a press conference Monday, L.A. County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer also acknowledged the historical and current inequities of under-resourced communities.

"It's for this reason that we need to continue to come up with new partnerships and strategies that make getting vaccinated in our hardest hit communities as accessible and as barrier free as possible," she said.

The "doughnut effect" in southeast LA

According to L.A. County's list of vaccination sites, there are no large-scale vaccine sites within a one-mile boundary of the communities in southeast L.A. vying for a large-scale vaccination site.

And that distance can feel far for the many residents of southeast Los Angeles who are dependent on public transportation.

"So, your Cal State LA, your Dodger Stadium is not accessible to my residents whatsoever," said Councilmember Diaz.

It's something Santana describes as the "doughnut effect."

"Everything is just scattered around us, but in SELA, there's, very, very minimal."

Southeast LA, she said, "is right smack in the middle of the doughnut, and the resources have always been spread out to the outskirts of the donut."

There are pharmacies, clinics and pop-up or mobile sites in these communities, but both Shah and Diaz agree there's not enough to go around.

"Little by little, you know, these mobile sites have been moving into our communities," said Santana. "We can't belittle that. But it's just not enough."

Mobile vaccine sites carry a few hundred vaccines, but it's not enough for the thousands of people who need to be vaccinated, said Santana.

Shah echoed this, saying that even when the county sends extra doses to pharmacies in harder hit areas, it's only about 200 a week, which works out to be less than 30 a day.

The push for more vaccine resources in southeast LA

These barriers in getting southeast L.A. residents vaccinated is why Diaz, Santana and their coalition of officials in southeast L.A. communities had a preliminary meeting with the Biden administration in February about setting up a large-scale vaccine site in the area.

"It was nice for them to hear out what we're going through on a day to day basis," said Diaz.

But, Shah noted that a large-scale vaccine site may not be the best approach because many are drive-up only and so are only available to those with cars.

There's also the issue of allocation. At Monday's press conference, Ferrer displayed a chart showing that across all sites, there's a capacity for just under 500,000 doses. But sites only have about half that, just under 270,000 doses. Some types of sites had capacity levels less than 30%.

"The issue is we simply still do not have the supply of vaccine needed to fill all of our appointments," Ferrer said.

In a statement, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents the majority of the southeast L.A. region, acknowledged that it's "critical that southeast Los Angeles not be left behind in the rollout of the vaccine," but noted some issues with a large-scale vaccine site in the area.

"The southeast Los Angeles region is very dense and overcrowded - large-scale arenas, stadiums, and fairgrounds are non-existent in this community," wrote Solis.

She also noted the dependence of residents in the area on alternate methods of transportation and the initial problem of people from more affluent areas taking up slots indented for local residents. That's why she said she's pushing for more partnerships with local community health clinics and pharmacies.

According to Solis, the California Office of Emergency Services and FEMA set up two mobile sites in mid-February, the first stop for these sites were in the city of Bell.

Dr. Ferrer detailed some of the ways the county is trying to ensure access to hard-hit area at Monday's conference.

These include encouraging restricted clinics so people in affluent areas can't take up appointments intended for locals, partnering with faith-based and community-based organizations who can directly reach out to people to help them sign up for appointments, creating transportation options for people who need it and increasing mobile sites.

Ferrer said 30 of the 46 mobile vaccine sites will be in South L.A., southeast L.A. and Antelope Valley, "areas of our county that have extraordinarily low vaccination rates among people who are ages 65 and older," said Ferrer.

Also, Supervisor Solis sent a letter Friday to Cal-OES and FEMA requesting an additional mobile vaccine site dedicated to southeast L.A. communities.

Despite Diaz's frustration with the feeling that her community is constantly overlooked, she also said Solis has been very "hands on" with "daily talks" and "constant emails."

Diaz said she doesn't want to point fingers, she just wants people to understand what they are going through on a day-to-day basis.

"We're in the field. We're out there, literally, with our cell phones and our iPads because of the digital divide that we face and how inaccessible it is to make these vaccine appointments for seniors and even anyone," she said.

LA County epidemiologist Dr. Shah expressed sympathy for the communities of southeast L.A. and said they're trying everything they can including walk-up clinics, church-based sites and even thinking about zip code-based days at certain sites.

"Let us know where we can do better," he said, also thanking the leaders of the southeast L.A. community. "We couldn't do it without them."

Ferrer echoed the sentiment in Monday's conference.

"Access to people living in communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic remains challenge and we're continuing to be grateful for all of the innovation that's happening at the local level," she said.

Diaz, Santana and the other members of SELA United have a follow-up meeting with the Biden administration in the coming weeks to discuss ways of adding more resources to southeast L.A.

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