Community advocacy groups in Santa Barbara County are calling on Public Health officials to ensure equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine, as data indicates that fewer vaccines are going to people of color and many groups face linguistic and cultural barriers. 

Thus far, Latinx, Indigenous and other racial groups in the county have been vaccinated about half as much as White residents, according to vaccine demographic data. Doses are currently available only to health care workers and residents 65 and older, both groups that public health officials say do not reflect the diversity of the county's population.

At a Feb. 11 town hall, leaders shared community concerns related to the vaccine, focusing on how underserved populations have historically been excluded from medical care by linguistic and financial barriers.

"As an Indigenous woman, discrimination is always something we have to face day by day in any institution. Medical institutions are not different; discrimination and lack of access [for] the Indigenous community is something that prevails today," said Dalia Garcia, an organizer with Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP).

Strategies for expanding access presented by the Public Health Department thus far include culturally and linguistically competent vaccine clinics and information sessions, as well as continuing collaborations with trusted community groups.

"We can only move at the speed of trust," Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso said at the town hall, which drew thousands of viewers listening in English, Spanish and Mixteco. 

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Ana Huynh, program director for the Santa Maria office of Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP), speaks with a community leader about the local impacts of COVID-19 on Thursday. MICOP is one of many organizations in the county working to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines in Santa Barbara County. 

As of Feb. 11, White residents had received the largest portion of COVID-19 vaccines at 38%, while Latinx and Hispanic individuals, who make up around half of the county’s population, have received 21% of total doses.

While the homogeneity of groups prioritized for vaccines contribute heavily to disparities in access — White people make up over 75% of the 65-and-older population while Latinx people make up 15% — community leaders said barriers like language, technology and cultural relationships to American medicine also play a role. 

Arcenio Lopez, executive director of MICOP, said few individuals in their network have been able to access a vaccine appointment, even if they qualify, because of the difficulty of navigating the online process.  

"Here you have a community that, for years, has been excluded from technology for various reasons, whether it's the high cost, or just not being tech-savvy," Lopez said. "Our community’s adjusting, but it’s a slow process." 

When the county begins to vaccinate the agricultural workforce, a sector made up heavily of immigrants and Indigenous people, Lopez said that centralized vaccination sites that accommodate workers' schedules also will be crucial.

"We are advocating that vaccines, once they’re ready, should be brought near to where our communities are. I keep pointing to where people can go; for example, our office in Santa Maria that is well known," he said. "The other thing that we’re trying to see is how we can get a group of employers in this effort." 

County Public Health spokeswoman Jackie Ruiz said the department is exploring options like mobile vaccine clinics and central pharmacy locations as options for farmworkers and other community members for whom transportation is an issue. 

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During the town hall, residents also shared concerns about providers requesting personal tax and insurance information from patients, which they said can increase vaccine hesitancy especially in the undocumented population. 

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A staff member in the Santa Maria office of Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) speaks with a client about the impacts of COVID-19 and possible assistance options on Thursday afternoon. MICOP is one of many organizations in the county working to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines in Santa Barbara County. 

Garcia described the experience of one Mixtec community member who was asked to provide the last four digits of their Social Security number prior to their vaccine appointment at an Albertsons, information that is not required for an appointment. 

"These kinds of questions scare our communities and it doesn't allow them to have comfort or trust to get the vaccine," Garcia said. 

Public health officials said they would reach out to the Albertsons, along with other providers, to make sure that information is not being requested from residents. 

"Social Security information is not part of the process … and I can see how being asked that would be very threatening and could prove to be a barrier to other community members coming forth to get vaccine," Do-Reynoso said. 

While insurance also is not required to get a vaccine, Ruiz said that some providers will ask patients to indicate if they are insured for the purposes of data collection. 

"With public health data, whether or not you're insured or not helps us to understand who is getting vaccinated," she said. 

An English-language recording of the COVID-19 vaccine town hall is available at facebook.com/SBCountyPublicHealth, with Spanish and Mixteco also available on the MICOP Facebook page.

Another town hall is scheduled for Feb. 25, to be hosted by Santa Maria City Councilwoman Gloria Soto and featuring Do-Reynoso. 

Coronavirus: Impact, response to COVID-19 on the Central Coast

We are working hard to get answers about the impact and reaction to the coronavirus in Santa Barbara County, this is a collection of those stories.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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