A firefighter from the Branciforte Fire Protection District in Santa Cruz gets vaccinated this year
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Vaccine Watch

Saying ‘no’ to the vaccine? In Santa Cruz County, yes, that’s happening

LOOKOUT EXCLUSIVE: Data obtained by Lookout Santa Cruz from local education, health care, law enforcement and firefighting agencies show varying degrees of vaccine hesitancy among people of different professions.

Now that we’re two weeks away from April 15, the day anyone in California age 16 and older can get vaccinated, everyone should be on the appointment hunt soon, right?

Not quite. Even in a largely liberal county like Santa Cruz, vaccine hesitancy — or at least delay — is common, data obtained by Lookout Santa Cruz from local education, health care, law enforcement and firefighting agencies shows.

Some of the key findings are that educators are more likely to accept the vaccine than workers in law enforcement; those who live in Santa Cruz are much more likely to want to be vaccinated than those in Watsonville; and not all health care workers have been vaccinated.

As Santa Cruz County inches out of the pandemic, Lookout is chronicling the changes in our lives and the accomplishments of everyday people. “People in the Pandemic” is one of eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of life amid COVID. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, and sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here.

Local health officials and leaders in education and law enforcement are quick to note that vaccine availability is an important factor that can be hard to disentangle from vaccine hesitancy — and also that vaccine acceptance rates are likely to improve over time as people see their peers get vaccinated.

But they also acknowledge the fact not everyone has been comfortable with taking the COVID-19 inoculation, which can have flu-like side effects.

Educators more likely to accept the vaccine than police

There is no requirement that various government agencies or those that get government funding must report vaccine acceptance rates. Lookout gathered the data for this story throughout March by asking Santa Cruz County agencies who were prioritized for vaccination in the state’s rollout plan to voluntarily disclose acceptance rates.

For teachers and school personnel only, Lookout sought a breakdown of North County versus South County vaccine acceptance given that this was the largest group — about 5,000 people total — of the agencies surveyed.

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Ninety-five percent of education workers in North County had taken a COVID-19 vaccine, giving them a higher vaccine acceptance rate than any other professional group surveyed by Lookout, including health care workers, fire personnel and police.

Police officers had the lowest acceptance rate of all sectors surveyed, with just over half of all cops taking the vaccine.

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Approximate Santa Cruz County vaccine acceptance by employment sector. This data was gathered between March 5 and March 25:

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According to Jennifer Buesing, Director of School Safety at the County Office of Education, vaccination efforts began in early February, and all of the county’s 5,000 K-12 teachers and staff were offered at least the first dose of the vaccine by March 7. Dignity Health provided enough vaccines for the first 70% of interested school staff, and the county supplied 1,000 additional vaccines to offer immunity to those remaining.

Although vaccine uptake skyrocketed quickly among educators, Buesing said vaccine hesitancy took shape among those who wanted to “wait and see” how well it worked for others, and among those concerned with how quickly the vaccine was developed.

Hesitancy appeared to be higher among South County educators in communities hardest hit by the pandemic. “Residents there have been overrepresented in COVID-19 cases and more likely to suffer worse outcomes,” Buesing said, “so I am not surprised that our South County residents may be less trusting of our medical system.”

For Amanda Sandoval Estrada, a school counselor at Watsonville High School, it wasn’t as much a matter of trust as of the safety of her 6-month-old daughter. She was notified on Feb. 18 that she could sign up for her first vaccine dose the following day.

Sandoval Estrada, who is breastfeeding, had questions about whether the vaccine would be safe for the infant. After a conversation with her daughter’s pediatrician, she said she was convinced the vaccine would help protect everyone in her family — including her husband and elderly parents — in addition to her newborn. She made arrangements to get inoculated on Feb. 19.

After her second dose, Sandoval Estrada experienced body aches, chills and joint pain. That didn’t stop her from feeling grateful for the shot. “It was a reminder of how lucky I was to receive that vaccine,” she said. “I cannot imagine actually experiencing COVID.”

Police lag behind educators on vaccines

The proportion of educators in North and South County who have signed up for vaccination appointments dwarfs the number of police officers who have done so in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, and exceed the share of County Sheriff’s personnel who have accepted the vaccine.

About 65% of Santa Cruz Police Department staff, which includes officers and administrators, had accepted the COVID-19 vaccine as of March 25, according to department spokesperson Joyce Blaschke. In the Watsonville Police Department, the acceptance rate was even lower — just 55%, and when only officers are counted, the number fell to 49%.

County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel suspects rates are higher among educators than other police because teachers are planning to return to indoor work places where they will have close contact with unvaccinated people — children — on a regular basis. That’s not the case with police officers, she said.

“The educators and staff are aware that they will be in close contact with unvaccinated groups every day and all day in their work, compared to many law enforcement employees who will not be in close contact ever in their line of work,” Newel said.

Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills, who received the vaccine, said he wasn’t sure why some on the force had refused. A handful of officers, he said, are pregnant; others want to wait out the “side effects” of the vaccine. But mostly, he said, the vaccine has not been a point of discussion among the police. For those officers that refused the vaccine, Mills said, “it was a personal choice and we respect that.”

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In a statement to Lookout Santa Cruz, Blaschke said that although law enforcement personnel were made eligible for the vaccine in late January, the police force was prioritized behind teachers for vaccine supply. On Feb. 5, Dignity Health Medical Group began vaccinating officers and staff as surplus doses became available.

Newel said all law enforcement personnel would have been offered a vaccine that week, around the same time educators became eligible.

Newel is “not especially” concerned about the spread of COVID-19 among law enforcement personnel. “When we get to a 70% vaccination rate we’re doing pretty well in a workplace setting, so it’s not too far below that, and hopefully more of them will get vaccinated in time as trust grows around the vaccine.”

“Every week more SCPD officers and staff elect to get the vaccine shot,” Blaschke wrote to Lookout.

Watsonville Police Captain David Rodriguez said he wasn’t sure why the acceptance rate was low among his colleagues. Anecdotally, he said he’s heard from officers who don’t typically take vaccines, whether for coronavirus or the seasonal flu. Others, he said, were waiting to see how things progressed, or holding out for a one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Rodriguez, who helped those interested in getting vaccinated schedule appointments, said vaccine supply had been “piecemeal” for his department. Some vaccines came from the hospital, others from Dignity Health.

Vaccine acceptance rates are higher among Santa Cruz and Watsonville Fire Department personnel, hovering around 80%. When asked if the decision to accept the vaccine had become politicized, Watsonville Fire Division Chief Tom Avila “politely decline[d]” to respond, adding that he had accepted the vaccine and had encouraged other members of the fire staff to do so.

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More vaccine hesitancy in South County

Lookout collected vaccine acceptance rate data from two county hospitals: Watsonville Community Hospital and Dominican Hospital, as well as from the Watsonville-based health clinic Salud Para La Gente, and found that the vaccine acceptance rate is slightly higher among health workers at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz than it is among health workers in Watsonville.

Over 80% of employees and more than 90% of physicians at Dominican Hospital had received the COVID-19 vaccine by March 5, according to hospital spokesperson Kevin Kimbrough.

At Watsonville Community Hospital, a spokesperson said 75% of medical staff had been vaccinated at the facility, but that some physicians who work at multiple facilities received their vaccines elsewhere. The rate is lower — around 70% — among employees with Salud Para La Gente, according to Salud’s Medical Director, Dr. Amy McEntee.

“What we’re seeing nationwide and locally is that communities of color are more likely to have vaccine hesitancy, and rightfully so,” said Newel, citing a long history of mistreatment of communities of color by the health establishment. “I think that’s part of the reason South County rates in general are a little lower than North County.”

Newel stressed that vaccine acceptance in all communities is likely to increase over time. “If we just continue offering and offering, people are gaining confidence in the vaccine as they see their loved ones and trusted people in their communities receiving their vaccines,” Newel said. “With time, that vaccine hesitancy is often overcome.”

How does Santa Cruz stack up to rest of state so far?

According to Cal Matters, a Lookout content partner, a survey released on Tuesday by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 14% of adults statewide said they would “definitely not get the vaccine.” Another 7% said they “probably” wouldn’t. That suggests that one in five Californians will need, at the very least, some extra convincing.

In the early days of the pandemic, epidemiologists estimated that roughly 70% of the population would need to acquire some degree of immunity to the virus — either by getting sick and developing antibodies or by receiving a vaccine — to slow transmission to a containable rate. New variants raise that figure to reach “herd immunity” to about 85%, Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease physician at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine told CalMatters.

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, which conducted the poll released this week, said the vaccine-reluctant bloc hasn’t diminished much since January when a similar survey put the number at 24%.

“There seems to be a hardcore of 20%,” he said. Given that number, Santa Cruz County educators accepted the vaccine at a higher rate; fire and health care personnel accepted it at a similar rate; and law-enforcement and Salud Para La Gente staff accepted it at a lower rate.

The most striking and unmoving predictor of vaccine skepticism was political affiliation, according to the poll. While 26% of Republicans said they “definitely” will not get vaccinated, only 13% of independents and 5% of Democrats said they definitely won’t.

“Recent polling data shows that vaccine acceptance is low among Republican men,” Leah Russin, director of Vaccinate California, a vaccine advocacy group, told Lookout. “We have to do some listening to figure out their concerns.”

Contributing: Mallory Pickett of Lookout