Governor Gavin Newsom’s visit to a COVID-19 vaccination site in Ramona Gardens last weekend brought unexpected attention to the issues of inequity and lack of access that have made communities like Boyle Heights the most highly impacted by the coronavirus.
Newsom addressed those issues and acknowledged the state has done a poor job in getting the vaccine out to Latino and Black communities during a press conference at the Boys and Girls Club in the Boyle Heights public housing complex, where a one-day mobile vaccination was set.
“This is what this site is all about. It’s proximate to a community that has been disproportionately impacted by this pandemic,” Newsom said.
“The effort here is to address that issue forthrightly. We have the responsibility, we have an obligation…We recognize we have more work to do,” added the governor, who is facing a recall campaign for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Ramona Gardens pop up, and a second site in Inglewood, were set up in partnership with the federal government and the state of California for people over 65 in communities disproportionality impacted by COVID-19.
But at the Ramona Gardens media event – which was attended by various local elected officials – it became obvious that some of the people being vaccinated were not from the neighborhood.
At Tuesday’s meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, chair Hilda Solís said that she was disgusted by media reports about people from more affluent neighborhoods who were active in social media being able to jump the line and take spots meant for vulnerable individuals.
“I am not surprised, I am disgusted,” said Solís, who was at the Ramona Gardens event. “And I am not disgusted at the work we are doing, but the behavior of people and the public that are not being responsible and allowing for those communities in the hardest hit areas to be able to stand in line and get their vaccine.”
According to a report the Los Angeles Times, special vaccine access codes meant for members of predominately Latino and Black communities began circulating in group chats and messages. In some cases, many of the people who used the codes were not eligible for the vaccine, according to state and local guidelines.
“I can tell you, off the bat, I was very alarmed to hear that individuals had gained access from the code, the code that is just given, I think, a day or maybe hours before the actual pod is set up and somehow they were able to get in line, ahead of the people this was intended for,” Solís said.
Since the rollout of vaccines for those 65 and older, areas with high populations of at-risk communities were not receiving equitable shares—especially in neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights which has seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections during the pandemic.
According to an LA Times analysis of county data, in Boyle Heights –where 1 in 5 people have contracted COVID-19 and 1 in 337 people have died from the virus– only 1 in 15 people have been vaccinated. In the much more affluent community of Bel Air, 1 in 24 have contracted the virus, there are two reported COVID19-related deaths and 1 in 4 people have been vaccinated.
While no studies have confirmed the relationship between wealth and vaccination rates, the differences in income and race between those two communities are stark: Bel Air has an average income of $201,000 a year with only 23% of the population identified as nonwhite compared to Boyle Heights where the average yearly income is $43,000 and the nonwhite population is 98%.
At a COVID-19 briefing earlier this month, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was asked by BHB about vaccine equity in areas like Boyle Heights, and how he intended to ensure that folks at higher risk would be able to receive the vaccine before people from wealthier neighborhoods who are at lower risk of infection. Garcetti responded that, legally, he could not order vaccinations priorities based on where people lived.
“I’m not legally permitted to [vaccinate] by geography but I would love the freedom to go by geography and zip code as much as by age or profession,” said Garcetti. “I absolutely would look at reserving vaccines for some of our hardest hit zip codes and surging them in to folks who don’t necessarily fit into the 65 and over or healthcare worker, or whatever is available. I’m very supportive of that.”