As the approaching second pandemic winter is raising concerns about another surge, California health officials are forging ahead with its campaign to get as many people as possible immunized against the coronavirus.
One of the challenges for public health personnel is convincing yet-to-be vaccinated residents to roll up their sleeves, especially in more inland and rural areas of the state where vaccination rates tend to be lower compared to coastal communities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.
But Zócalo Public Square’s commentator Joe Matthews says officials may want to learn a thing or two from some rural communities that are bucking that trend — including the Salinas Valley, east of Monterey, and the Imperial Valley outside of San Diego.
Opinion column by Joe Mathews:
If demography really was COVID destiny, then Gonzales, a small, working-class town with a young, Latino population in rural California, would be a pandemic disaster.
Instead, Gonzales is among California’s most vaccinated places. In this Salinas Valley town of 9,000, 98% of eligible residents have received at least one dose.
Gonzales is part of a larger, unexpected success story around vaccination in the state’s two leading agricultural areas for lettuce and green vegetables — the Salinas and Imperial valleys.
North of Gonzales, the city of Salinas also boasts a vaccination rate above 90%, well above the statewide average and the rate on the Monterey Peninsula.
Down on the U.S.-Mexico border, Imperial County is the most vaccinated place in the state’s southern half, as CalMatters first noted. Imperial boasts an 86% vaccination rate, 10 points higher than Los Angeles or Orange counties and 20-plus points above San Bernardino and Riverside Counties.
The contrast is even more dramatic when you compare heavily vaccinated Salinas and Imperial with the slow-to-vaccinate rural regions — the San Joaquin Valley and the North State — that saw coronavirus surges paralyze local health systems this fall. Some counties in those regions have vaccination rates below 50%.
So, what explains the success of these two valleys in inoculating younger Latinos working in essential industries — the very demographic the rest of the state struggles to vaccinate?
The answers start with vegetables. Salinas and Imperial Valleys share networks of growers and workers who operate in Salinas through summer, and Imperial (and neighboring Yuma, Arizona) in winter. These workers were among the hardest hit by the first wave of COVID-19 last spring. But after the early months of the pandemic, agricultural networks in the two valleys rallied in a big way.
Tight collaboration among entities that can be at odds — growers, local governments, community advocates, health clinics — was crucial. In the Salinas Valley, the Grower Shipper Association, an agricultural industry group, and Clinica de Salud, a community health clinic, shared an award for their joint efforts to protect workers with quarantine housing and mass vaccination campaigns.
The Salinas Valley collaborators obtained their own supply of vaccines directly from the federal government, bypassing the state government. The vaccination collaborations also benefited from pre-pandemic organizing campaigns around farmworker health and the 2020 Census count.
Down in Imperial, similar collaboration between county health officials, community nonprofits, the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, and health providers brought vaccinations to even the smallest settlements of the sprawling valley. Imperial officials and institutions even vaccinated people who live south of the border but work in Imperial.
Participants in these efforts say the aggressive, early spread of COVID in the community meant there was little vaccine resistance: Too many people knew the virus was deadly. Some also attribute the vaccination success to a more robust local health infrastructure since the passage of Obamacare.
But vaccination, for all the public conversation about national rates, is a local function. And Gonzales, which won a major national award for community health before the pandemic, exemplifies how to do it.
Community health workers were central to the approach. By January 2021, Gonzales had hired six such workers, who went door to door to build relationships with people. They brought free food boxes from three local food pantries that the city set up early in the pandemic to quarantined residents.
They also became certified COVID-19 testers. This helped them reach vaccine holdouts who, after testing negative for COVID-19, were quickly registered for vaccine appointments.
Since February, Gonzales’ vaccination campaign has been relentless with many organizations partnering to host over 20 mass vaccination clinics at the high school, the small and independent Gonzales RX Pharmacy, and the local Catholic church.
To make sure there were always enough people in town who could give shots, the city had five Gonzales firefighters certified in administering COVID-19 vaccines. In addition to these personnel, nursing students from nearby Hartnell College and local pharmacy staff also handled inoculations.
When so many different people are working together to get you vaccinated, it doesn’t matter who you are or how small or rural your community is. Because resistance is futile.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.