OAKLAND — Aaron Gonzalez isn’t too surprised when he meets someone in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood who doesn’t want a COVID-19 vaccine.
As a paid community ambassador, he’s working to educate residents about the safety and efficacy of vaccines in one of the Bay Area’s hardest-hit neighborhoods, providing information, answering questions about the shots and sometimes even registering them for a dose right then and there.
But he knows he can’t convince everyone, at least not right away — his own aunt doesn’t want to be vaccinated despite a bout with COVID-19 that required lengthy hospitalization.
“I try to convince them but I don’t push,” he said. “My aunt says, ‘I have natural immunity.'”
The on-the-ground effort is one of many in the Bay Area, where vaccination rates are among the highest in the nation, but those who have not yet gotten a shot are harder to reach and can require additional resources or persuasion as part of a regional effort to get to herd immunity.
That family experience with COVID is what drove Gonzalez, a student at San Francisco State University, to work as an ambassador in the outreach effort organized by The Unity Council, an East Oakland nonprofit, La Clínica de la Raza and UC San Francisco to improve vaccination rates in the Fruitvale neighborhood, which is home to many essential workers and for months had some of the highest case rates in Alameda County.
He was out with Alexa Rivas and Maria Lopez, both Cal State East Bay students, this week walking International Boulevard and talking to people about vaccinations.
Most people they talked to said they already had their shots, with some thanking the workers for their efforts. Lopez, whose parents are also unvaccinated, said in the month that she’s been doing on-the-ground outreach she’s gone from signing up six to eight people a day to one or two, a decline she attributes to rising vaccination rates.
Still, vaccinations lag in the 94601 ZIP code, which includes Fruitvale, where only 59.8% of residents 12 and older are fully inoculated, a rate that is 12% lower than Alameda County overall. Vaccination rates are even lower further into the largely Black and Latino and low-income East Oakland communities such as the 94621 ZIP code, which includes the Coliseum, where only 56.2% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated. In the 94603 ZIP code, which includes the Elmhurst Park neighborhood, 56.8% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated.
“We do know that we’re slowing down, the last of the (unvaccinated) folks are going to be hardest to reach,” said Jane Garcia, CEO of La Clínica. “Hopefully we’re reaching herd immunity, but we don’t have the luxury of relying on that.”
That means every single new signup is crucial, and La Clínica has been leveraging its decades as a trusted community health center in the heart of Fruitvale to get residents inoculated. Sometimes, she said, that means getting on the phone with hesitant residents and talking through their concerns.
“Sometimes our doctors have ended up making calls where a member of the family calls and says, ‘Grandma is not cooperating,'” Garcia said. “That has been also very effective.”
Latinos, who are about half of the residents in Fruitvale, have been four times more likely to contract COVID-19 than their White neighbors in the Bay Area. The higher case rates, experts say, are driven by factors including more crowded housing conditions and their work in essential jobs that can’t be done remotely. Latinos are also less likely to be vaccinated, making up 39% of the eligible population but only 28% of vaccine recipients in California, according to data from the state’s Department of Public Health.
Chris Iglesias, CEO of The Unity Council, said part of the work to get vaccination rates up in Fruitvale involved workers who residents could recognize and trust such as their community ambassadors, who can talk to people in their language and give them resources to get a shot.
“Right now we’re really in the trenches and getting out there and meeting people where they are at,” he said.
Latinos as a whole aren’t more hesitant to get the vaccines than other racial and ethnic groups. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found among unvaccinated individuals, 33%of Latinos wanted to get their shot “as soon as possible,” compared with 17% of Black and 16% of White unvaccinated Americans. For many, all they need is information on where to sign up, ideally in their own language.
Among the people contacted by the ambassadors, one woman had a question about what her son, who had missed his second dose, should do. Another woman, waiting at a bus stop, said she hadn’t gotten vaccinated and had no interest in it, despite vocal support for the shots from some nearby bus riders.
Delmi Barrera, who was walking through the Fruitvale Village with her seven-year-old son, just needed to know if her other son, 14, was eligible for a shot. Lopez said he was. Barrera didn’t want to make an appointment on the spot, saying she needed to schedule the date with the child’s father, so Lopez gave her a list of vaccination sites and a link for where to register.
“It’s very important to know because one is left with questions,” Barrera said in Spanish afterward, holding the information for where to get her son vaccinated. “I’m going to do it this weekend.”