To reduce vaccine hesitancy among OC Latinos, share personal stories and boost resource availability

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In Orange County, there have been 252,963 coronavirus cases and nearly 4900 deaths since the pandemic began, according to OC Health Care Agency. The positivity rate there is higher than in Los Angeles, and the Latino population is hit particularly hard.

KCRW talks with regular contributor Gustavo Arellano about efforts to improve vaccination rates among Latinos in OC. 

KCRW: In LA, vaccine efforts are being led by mobile teams, church groups, and community-based organizations. Are you seeing similar outreach in OC? 

Gustavo Arellano: “That's actually been the saving grace to the embarrassment that has been coronavirus in Orange County. Orange County is a place where you had cities protesting against masks, bonfires against masks even. You had politicians who just didn't believe that coronavirus really was as big an issue as people are making [it] out to be. But the people who understood it from the beginning were these church groups, specifically these small health-based nonprofit in the Latino community.” 

Why do you think COVID has hit the county so hard, specifically among Latinos?

“There's just those historical inequities in places like Santa Ana, like Anaheim, my hometown, Garden Grove, just these working class communities that have historically been ignored. Nonprofits could only do so much. At some point, you're gonna have to have these city and county governments step up to the plate, and they just waited way too late to think of coronavirus as a real thing. 

For the longest time, there was no big testing facility in Santa Ana or even a vaccine facility. This, despite the mayor and the City Council screaming and pleading with the Board of Supervisors to send one to them. Instead, Anaheim got two of them. There was a vaccine center at the Anaheim Convention Center and one right down the street at the Disneyland Resort.”

Do the demographics of the Latino population play a role? The population tends to be a little younger. 

“In terms of the population 65 and older, Latinos only make up about 15% of that population while making up more than a third of Orange County's population. But even the rollout itself, like you had these big vaccine centers in places like Soka University all the way down there in Aliso Viejo, places where people needed cars and also just someone to transport them. You also had the Othena app. For months, that was the only way that you could book an appointment to get a vaccine through Orange County, but it was glitchy. It wasn't even out in Spanish for the first couple of weeks or so, despite promises by the county that it was. It was just a disaster.”

Your dad had a lot of vaccine hesitancy too, and convincing him to get the shot was tough. 

“Oh, yeah, it was an ordeal. But like I talked about it, my dad eventually said yes. And I think you do have these tendencies, especially among the younger folks, with Latinos. And I've talked about this before in Santa Ana, where you had parties, you had people not wearing masks. And you could go on shaming people, but I also advocate on the smaller level, on the person to person level, trying to reason with them, with love, with care.”

What have organizers found to be the most effective way to counter that? You talked about the glitchesness of the app, and all of those things seem to have been rectified. What else can be done besides the outreach? 

“On the personal level, giving them those stories, I found that most of the people who believe COVID does not exist, did not have someone in their family or in their life who has passed away. 

Also I think it's incumbent upon county and city government to be making those resources available. I did a story for The [LA] Times, for instance, in Oxnard, where they had the two zip codes that accounted for 40% of all COVID cases in Ventura County, and just how the activists were saying something as simple as doing a pop-up testing site at a park in the middle of the barrio, that will make a huge difference. So for cities and especially the County Health Agency, the more they do that, the easier it's going to be to wrangle down this COVID, especially among Latinos, once and for all.”