Mobile vaccine clinics in Long Beach hope to bridge vaccine disparity for elder residents in underserved communities

Approximately 500 doses were provided at the Silverado Park mobile vaccine clinic, which focused on Spanish-speaking adults 65 and over. (Photo Courtesy City of Long Beach)

As the rush of Long Beach moving on to the second phase of the COVID-19 vaccination process started to settle, a reality became apparent: people ages 65 and over from historically underserved communities were not being vaccinated at high rates.

Like others waiting to get vaccinated, seniors have had the option to register through the City’s vaccine notification system, VaxLB, in order to make an appointment. Through that avenue, places like MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center began vaccinating older adults that had been registered.

Additionally, older adults have also had the option of receiving the vaccine at the Long Beach Health Department. 

However, the digital divide, language and trust are very real barriers that Long Beach residents ages 65 and over in marginalized communities have had to face when it became their turn to receive the vaccine.

According to City data released in early Feb. 2021, of those eligible for the vaccine, 49.15% of people who received the first dose were white, while 0.54% were American Indian and Alaskan Native, 1.23% were Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, 7.56% were Black and 21.17% were Hispanic or Latinx, respectively. 

Looking to bridge these stark disparities, the City of Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services launched a series of mobile vaccine clinics consisting of a vaccination team focusing on older adults and doing outreach in high-risk, historically underserved neighborhoods.

Areas in the city, such as West and North Long Beach have been affected disproportionately by the coronavirus. Approximately 58% of the population in the Northside are Hispanic or Latinx of any race and 20% are Black, with the median income being $45,878, according to City data from 2018.

As of Feb. 23, the 90805 zip code in North Long Beach had 12,930 cases compared to 1,783 cases in the 90803 zip code in the wealthier Belmont Shore where the population is 68.4% white and the median income is $100,089 according to City data.

Rate of COVID cases by zip code, the darker orange signifying highest rates compared to the paler orange. City of Long Beach
Rate of COVID cases per zip code listed from the areas with the highest amount of cases to the lowest.

The first mobile clinic took place on Feb. 6 at Silverado Park on the Westside of Long Beach which currently has the fifth-highest coronavirus infection rate, according to the latest City-data. Spanish-speaking staff was available to address any questions and assist the primarily Spanish-speakers ages 65 and over in attendance. 

Approximately 500 doses of the vaccine were given at this vaccine site, the press release said.

Mobile vaccine clinics, so far, have been serving approximately 200 to 400 people each, a stark difference compared to the convention center’s 3,000-person capacity.

This difference in size is something Sharon Diggs-Jackson believes is a crucial part of the overall vaccination plan, adding accessibility for many seniors.

“What they’re doing at the convention center and at some of the other larger facilities are great […] but not everybody is going to be able to get to those facilities,” she said.

Diggs-Jackson and her organization, Elite Skills Development, helped organize a mobile vaccine clinic at St. Mark Baptist Church located in the 90813 zip code, which currently has the second-highest coronavirus infection rate, focusing on reaching Black elders on Feb. 10. 

Also involved were the Minister’s Alliance and the NAACP in partnership with District 6 Councilmember Suely Saro.

The smaller mobile vaccine clinics, which have all been partnerships with local community groups, have helped in establishing trust with older adults.

“They help in terms of kind of transitioning some of the trust issues out there, some of the hesitancy,” Diggs-Jackson said. 

She noted that older adults knowing they could call and talk to someone they already knew and trusted directly was a relief. Being able to ask questions at an event much smaller in scale also made them more comfortable. 

“Some of them signed up, but they came with reservations,” she said. “They were still nervous.”

Those who went to St. Mark for the first vaccine will be able to return to the same location for their second dose, something Diggs-Jackson says will add to their willingness to return.

Martha Cota, founder of Latinos in Action California helped organize the Feb. 20 mobile vaccine clinic at Washington Middle School, also in the 90813 area, focusing on Latinx residents.

Cota had a similar experience when it came to trust from the community.

“They’re afraid because of their legal status,” Cota said in Spanish to the Signal Tribune referring to one of the barriers some Latinx elders face.

“They’re afraid and say ‘what if immigration arrives while I’m getting my vaccine?’”

Cota noted that this adds a layer of vulnerability to the Latinx community, but recognizing a trusted organization like hers being involved in the mobile vaccine clinic puts them at ease.

The Feb. 20 mobile clinic was a partnership between District 1 Councilmember Mary Zendejas, District 7 Councilmember Roberto Uranga and community organizations.

“The event on Saturday was directly a result of my Latinos Contra Covid Task Force (Latinos Against Covid Task Force) that I had created back in December,” Zendejas said. “The numbers in my district in regards to COVID were very, very very high, and I felt like I couldn’t just sit there and feel like I couldn’t do anything.”

Seniors getting vaccinated at Silverado Park mobile vaccine clinic on Feb 6. (Photo Courtesy of City of Long Beach)

“I had to do something so I decided to create this task force to try to find one, reasons on why this is affecting the Latino community at an alarming rate. And to the find solutions to stop the spread of COVID, and really address, you know, the issues that are happening in this community,” Zendejas said.

Aside from vaccinating Latinx seniors, vaccine appointments were also extended to other members of the Latinx community who were eligible. Approximately 400 people attended the mobile vaccine clinic.

Maria Dolores de Dios Alvarez, 84, of Long Beach was one of them.

Although she had some hesitation on whether or not to take the vaccine at first, she ultimately decided to attend the Feb. 20 mobile vaccine clinic.

“Everything went well,” Alvarez said in Spanish to the Signal Tribune. “I said ‘why wouldn’t we get the vaccine?’ It’s better to be ready. […] I tell others not to be afraid, the vaccine is to help us to prevent being sick with COVID.”

In order to sign up older adults who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do so due to barriers such as the digital divide, Cota, Diggs-Jackson and others involved in planning the mobile vaccine clinics did additional outreach.

For older adults in historically underserved communities, not having access to a computer or the internet has been a barrier that the City and community partnerships are trying to bridge.

“Community organizations were invited by [Zendejas and Uranga] to connect their vision with the necessities we’re seeing in our community,” Cota said of her participation in the Feb. 20 mobile clinic. “Especially with our Latino community that doesn’t have access to a computer or internet or older adults [who] don’t know how to access an app and register [for the vaccine]”

While residents continue to be pulled from the VaxLB system for vaccinations, it is understood that there are barriers that limit people from signing up so these community partnerships have been established to help eligible people register for appointments, according to Equity Officer Katie Balderas

“We are working closely with community partners in each respective community to understand the barriers that people face and work to reach those who are at highest risk of illness and eligible to receive the vaccine,” Balderas said. 

Community partners have been part of the outreach, contacting those who are registered on VaxLB without email addresses to help them schedule appointments. 

For Diggs-Jackson and those involved in the planning at the St. Mark mobile vaccine clinic, an aggressive outreach campaign was laid out in order to sign up as many elders as possible.

A flyer was posted on social media and was also provided to the Long Beach Ministers Alliance. 

The pastors relayed information about the mobile vaccine clinic during their Sunday services and directed members to call Elite Skills Development.

“Our phones rang off the hook Sunday night, Monday and Tuesday, and we literally were registering people over the phone,” Diggs-Jackson told the Signal Tribune.

Similarly, Zendejas and her team were able to do additional outreach through community partnerships, such as Latinos in Action California.

Laura Som, founder of the MAYE Center in Long Beach has been doing similar outreach for the Cambodian community, who have faced similar barriers such as computer illiteracy and language. Som has been hosting bilingual Facebook workshops on COVID-19 education and helping the Cambodian community get appointments for the vaccine.

See related: Cambodian seniors struggle to access vaccines, Laura Som wants to change that

Som helped organize the first mobile vaccine clinic in Cambodia Town that took place on Monday, Feb. 22, in which 390 doses of the vaccine were secured.

According to Balderas, the mobile vaccine clinics currently planned will focus on distributing second doses to those who received a vaccine during the first round of clinics, starting with Silverado Park. 

However, Balderas said that future mobile clinics will be continued to be scheduled with community partners and will be contingent on vaccine supply. 

“It’s important to reach residents from across the city and to get vaccines into lower income and high-risk communities,” Mayor Robert Garcia said in a press release announcing the launch of the mobile vaccine clinics. “We are committed to launching these clinics for seniors and other community members who live in impacted areas.” 

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