Gail Newel, Marm Kilpatrick and Pajaro Valley Student Assistance CEO Erica Padilla-Chavez
Santa Cruz County Health Officer Gail Newel, UC Santa Cruz epidemiologist Marm Kilpatrick and Pajaro Valley Student Assistance CEO Erica Padilla-Chavez offer insight to the COVID-19 pandemic during a Lookout event Thursday night.

Experts warn of inequitable vaccine distribution in Santa Cruz County during Lookout event

Amid a vaccine rollout hamstrung by limited supplies and logistical challenges, Santa Cruz County government and community leaders sounded alarms Thursday night about how vaccine distribution in South County is lagging even further behind.

The pandemic already has exposed and exacerbated existing inequities across the country, health and community-outreach experts said during a special Lookout virtual event. And South County, home to a large chunk of the county’s Latinx population, is no exception — especially when it comes to vaccine distribution.

“We have improvement to do in the equitable distribution of vaccines,” said Erica Padilla-Chavez, CEO of Pajaro Valley Prevention & Student Assistance and a member of the Pajaro Valley Save Lives team, a coalition of not-for-profits doing COVID-19 prevention and outreach to South County residents.

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Unlike other parts of Santa Cruz County, South County is home to a higher percentage of indigent, undocumented individuals who are not enrolled in traditional health care systems, where most vaccines are being distributed.

“We want to engage with the county to have greater clarity, to work with them as they’re mapping it out so that we can . . . begin to calm some of the anxiety and some of their own feeling of being felt dismissed in this process,” Padilla-Chavez said. “So we need to address that, and I understand we’re going to start the conversation pretty soon around that.”

County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel, who was also part of the panel of experts that discussed a wide-range of pandemic-related issues Thursday, agreed that the vaccine rollout has not been as equitable as it needs to be. “We really want to ensure an equitable rollout of vaccine across the county, and especially reaching our hard to reach populations and our most impacted populations in South County, and other affected areas,” she said.

Newel expressed frustration about the overall vaccine rollout by the federal government, which she said has begun to provide “massive amounts” of the vaccine directly to major health systems rather than giving vaccines to county health systems to coordinate distribution. In California vaccine parlance, the health systems are referred to as “multi-county entities” because they serve patients in multiple markets.

The MCEs that serve Santa Cruz County include Sutter Health/PAMF, Kaiser Permanente, and Dignity Health-Dominican, Newel explained. And though they have been “fantastic partners” in helping distribute the vaccine to health care workers to date, they will mostly work with those who are insured and predominantly in the northern part of the county going forward, she said.

Weeks after the first vaccines arrived, county officials are still trying to put the 17,900 doses they’ve received into the arms of health care, pharmacy, dental and other workers at high risk of catching the virus. Little more than 7,500 shots have been administered to date — some of them second doses.

The phase 1a vaccine population in Santa Cruz County totals about 15,000 people, each of whom will need two doses. The county will be opening up a mass vaccination clinic at the Fairgrounds next week for health care workers to help finish up Phase 1a of the rollout, Newel said.

Meanwhile, health systems have begun vaccinating patients 75 and older, and in some cases, even 65 and older, with no central database to record exactly how many — and where — those doses are being distributed. The overwhelming majority of those patients have health insurance.

“So, that creates the reality, it’s not just the optics, but the reality of inequities and we’re working hard to address that,” Newel said.

In South County, where many residents already are on shaky financial ground, the pandemic has put additional economic strain on families. Many of them need to have two to three jobs just to make ends meet and many of those occupations are considered essential, Padilla-Chavez said. “So the rate of exposure for these individuals who are just trying to put food on the table and pay the rent is much greater than those of us who have the opportunity to work in an office,” she said.

And despite an eviction moratorium, some families have become homeless. In a community with a high percentage of indigent or undocumented residents, oftentimes many don’t know how to navigate those policies or the legal world to advocate for themselves, Padilla-Chavez said.

“And so we’ve seen a high percentage of families lose their housing as a result and so that’s going to have lasting impacts, not just for the adults who became unhoused but the children who are now living in adverse housing conditions or even more extensive overcrowded conditions,” she said. “So we’ve got a long road ahead of us.”

The inequities in vaccine distribution haven’t been lost on Watsonville leaders either.

“Mid-county and North County are getting their shots, but we here in South County are not,” Watsonville Councilmember Ari Parker said in a meeting Tuesday. “The City of Watsonville, we’re using all our resources to bring them here. ... I know our city manager and our fire department and our EMTs are putting together a plan, but there’s just some serious inequities.”

Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra agreed, saying he is having weekly meetings with county leaders. The inequity in the county is “very clear,” even as the city is “disproportionately affected,” he added.

“We have generational housing down here, we have essential workers, we have migrant workers that are every day outside in the elements,” Dutra said. “We know that these are serious issues. We are fighting every single day.”

UC Santa Cruz epidemiologist Marm Kilpatrick joined Newel and Padilla-Chavez in the Lookout panel discussion, titled “COVID 2021: The Experts Answer Your Questions.” Lookout will continue to report on different issues addressed during the discussion — including questions about virus variants and the way COVID-19 is spreading — Friday and in the days ahead.

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Contributing: Isabella Cueto