Long Beach mayor on rapidly vaccinating residents, from health care workers to teachers and food workers

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

While LA County is dealing with COVID-19 vaccination problems such as short supplies, long lines, and a complicated sign-up system, it’s a different story in Long Beach. There, the city is already vaccinating teachers and grocery store workers. That’s on top of health care workers, long-term care residents and staff, and people 65 and older. Long Beach has its own public health department, so it can set different rules than the rest of the county. 

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia tells KCRW that vaccination shots have gone to 6500 educators from Long Beach Unified School District, plus 500-600 key staff at the city’s community college. On Monday, critical frontline and custodial staff at California State University Long Beach got shots too. 

“The education sector, along with some of the privates and the independent schools, has been going really well. And something we're really proud of here in the city is getting more teachers vaccinated,” he says.

If campuses are going to open for in-person classes, teachers and stuff must be vaccinated, and the supply right now is a big question, Garica says.  

“We really need more supply from the feds. And certainly the state's working on that. If we were able to vaccinate, let's say our K-12 teachers or K-5 teachers, I think we're much more likely to have some type of campus reopening this semester. But it's really going to be dependent on the school district, on the teachers, and how safe folks feel.” 

He adds what also matters are personal protective equipment and proper ventilation in classrooms. 

Health care and food service workers 

“Health care workers are for the most part done, or over half of them are on their second doses. We have 100% of our skilled care facilities are done — and staff and residents are all of course on their second dosage right now,” Garcia says. 

The city has also vaccinated its firefighters, police officers, emergency service workers. Now the concentration is on teachers and food workers. 

“We're moving right now into second doses. … But we continue every single day, also focused on that 65-plus population. And you're just not hearing some of the same horror stories that you're hearing [from] other places across the country of the state.”

How was Long Beach able to do this so quickly? 

“We made a decision early on that I think was really important. And when vaccines first started coming in, a lot of health jurisdictions made these decisions about, ‘Well we're going to take what comes in, and we're going to plan it out over a certain period of time, so we don't run out. We're going to plan the next three weeks out and set aside this many per day for the next three weeks,’” Garcia recalls.

He explains Long Beach’s different approach: “We got the vaccine, and we said, ‘Let's run out like tomorrow. … Let's get it out as fast as possible. And if we run out, that is a good problem to have.’ And so that is a riskier approach in some ways. But it's worked for us. And so it's given us the opportunity to get the vaccine out the door faster and move through the tiers quicker.” 

Size is another factor. The city of Long Beach is smaller than the city of LA, and Long Beach’s health department is smaller than LA County’s. 

“I mean, I have a lot of love and support for the leaders of the county system right now. They're doing a huge, huge amount of work and getting all these folks vaccinated. But yes, having our own health department allows us to make decisions faster and move quicker, and quite frankly, correct problems as they arise,” Garcia says. 

Supply is Long Beach’s biggest challenge 

“We are vaccinating what comes in. But we could be vaccinating 10 times what we're doing right now if we had just more vaccines, and so we would be flying through all of these tiers. … So whatever comes in, we get out the door,” says Garcia.

He says he’s hopeful about more organization happening at the federal level, and that Gov. Gavin Newsom has made changes in the last week or two that will allow vaccines to move more quickly statewide. 

“Hero pay” and grocery store closures 

The company Kroger says it's closing two stores in Long Beach after the city mandated “hero pay” — a $4 per hour raise for grocery store workers during the pandemic. The raise is temporary, but 200 people could lose their jobs because of store closures. 

“It's completely just wrong and really shameful that this is what Kroger is doing. … The supermarket chains are doing better than they ever have. And anyone that's gone into a grocery store and seen one of these workers, how can you look someone in the eye and tell them that they don't deserve a few extra dollars an hour as hazard pay during this pandemic?” says Garcia. “Hazard pair, heroes’ pay was something that supermarkets were doing over the summer when the situation was not even as bad as it is today.” 

He says the Long Beach City Council unanimously adopted this extra pay and he signed it into law. “Immediately they took us to court, they tried to get a temporary restraining order. They lost. … The judge did not grant their temporary restraining order on the ordinance. And now, we are going to continue to go to court later this month to protect these workers.”

He adds that Long Beach will also work with people who might lose their jobs and try to get them placement at other stores or whatever support they need. 

He says there’s overwhelming support across the state. “Just since we passed heroes’ pay, the city of Los Angeles adopted it. Oakland just adopted it last night. San Jose just adopted it last night. And there's a handful of other cities that are looking to do the same. So this is a movement across the state. And it's absolutely the right thing to do.”

Kroger says these two stores were failing anyway, and that Long Beach’s action overstepped their traditional management union bargaining process. 

“Yes. And they also said, I believe in their press release, that they're linking closure of the stores to the heroes' pay. So I think what they're saying is they would rather not pay and support their workers. … We're going to be in court later this month,” says Garcia. 

A personal loss for Mayor Garcia 

Garcia's mom and stepfather died of COVID-19 this past summer. 

“My mom was a health care worker. And so kind of her advice, even before the pandemic, and the way that she cared about science and about doing the right thing and supporting medicine, I think has really strengthened my ability to actually do the job,” says Garcia. 

“I tell people all the time that when I see someone getting a vaccine, I view that as an opportunity to see that person's life, and that is a life-saving opportunity. And I know that my mom as a health care worker would have been at the front of the line getting her vaccination. And so I wake up thinking every day, you know, what can I do to help people, keep everyone and their family together?”