Community health worker, or promotora, Julieta Martinez speaks with a customer at Yeyo’s Meat Market about the COVID-19 vaccine during an outreach event in South Hayward on May 10, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
In the parking lot of a small supermarket in South Hayward, a handful of volunteers with the Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center asked shoppers in Spanish if they had received the COVID-19 vaccine, and if not, encouraged them to book an appointment.
One of the community health workers — known among Latino immigrants as promotoras — struck up a conversation with a woman who got out of a pickup truck holding a baby and a toddler dressed in pajamas.
The woman, Mayra Contreras, said she was still deciding whether to get the shot, and needed more information. But she said her hands are full working as a babysitter and helping her own children keep up with virtual school at home.
“I’m going to think about it,” said Contreras, 36, after accepting a bilingual flyer dispelling common myths about the vaccine and explaining how to sign up. “It’s also because of time. Life is just stressful with kids.”
Contreras is one of tens of thousands of residents in ZIP Code 94544 who don’t yet have the shot against the deadly disease. South Hayward, as well as East Oakland and other working-class neighborhoods along the I-880 highway, are lagging behind the rest of Alameda County in vaccination rates even though they are the very places where people have suffered the highest rates of illness and death from COVID-19.
As demand for doses dwindled at mega vaccination sites such as at the Oakland Coliseum, which is set to close on Sunday, Bay Area public health officials are shifting strategies to target communities where a greater proportion of eligible people remain unvaccinated.
In South Hayward, health workers say, some adults are holding out because of unreliable information they got from friends or social media. But others are busy with two jobs, trying to make up income they lost earlier in the pandemic, and find it challenging to take time off to get the shot and recover from possible side effects, said Guadalupe Perez, a long-time promotora with the Tiburcio Vasquez clinic.
“Some people say, ‘No, I don't want to go in, especially because I heard somebody got sick. So I don't want to get sick and miss work,’ ” said Perez. She recommends they weigh the risks of getting seriously ill from the coronavirus versus the short-term tiredness and chills they might feel from the vaccine.
In California, all employees who work for more than 30 days in a year for the same employer are entitled to up to 24 hours of paid sick leave they can use to get vaccinated and recover, regardless of their immigration status.
The state has mandated COVID-19-related sick leave of up to 80 hours for larger employers through September. But many low-wage and front-line workers don’t know they have that right, or they fear retaliation if they assert it, according to a recent survey of hundreds of workers in the restaurant, home health care, janitorial and additional industries.
Others who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine have delayed it because of lingering medical questions.
Norma Bernabe, a tortilla factory worker, said she and her family want to get vaccinated, but they are unsure of when to do it safely. She was very ill with the coronavirus in March, she said, and her husband and 13-year-old son were also sick.
“My husband heard we had to wait 90 days, but I don’t know,” said Bernabe, who also lives in South Hayward, before entering Yeyo’s Meat Market on Gading Road. “That’s why we haven’t made an appointment.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends most infected people get vaccinated as soon as they finish their isolation period and COVID-19 symptoms disappear, but those who were treated with monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma should wait 90 days.
Perez, the promotora, suggested Bernabe check with her doctor first, and then sign up for the shot.
As of late last month, 121 people residing in ZIP code 94544 had died due to the virus, more than in any other ZIP code in the county, according to the Alameda County Health Department.
The next ZIP code over, 94541, which includes the Cherryland neighborhood, registered the second highest number of COVID-19 fatalities in the county: 107. Both of the populous ZIP codes — where more than 40% of residents identify as Latino and more than a third are immigrants — also had the county’s highest rates of coronavirus deaths per capita.
Most of those who died were elderly, including residents at more than a dozen long-term care facilities in those ZIP codes. But many of the younger victims were front-line workers — including an airline mechanic, a butcher, a cook, a dishwasher, a registered nurse and a street sweeper, according to county death records obtained by KQED and the Documenting COVID-19 project at Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation.
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Despite the death toll in 94544 and 94541, barely half of the residents 16 and older there are fully vaccinated as of this week, compared to nearly 60% for the entire county, and closer to 80% in wealthier ZIP codes in the Berkeley and Oakland hills.
“We have a ways to go,” said Dr. Nicholas Moss, Alameda County health officer. “And it’s compounded by the fact that these are often communities that, because of COVID restrictions and the economic impacts, were in a very difficult spot going into the vaccination campaign.”
Latinos in the county got a later start getting vaccinated, he said, because they tend to be younger and fewer of them work in health care jobs, so they didn’t qualify for the early tiers of eligibility. In addition, residents who are not fluent in English or face technology barriers, had a harder time signing up for appointments when vaccine supply was limited, he said.
“It’s been a confusing process,” said Moss. “The information has been confusing about when you're eligible and how to sign up and where we go.”
But now that there are enough doses and everyone age 12 and older is eligible, county health officials are focusing on building up the vaccination efforts of community clinics, private health care providers and pharmacies in areas officials consider high priority.
To protect more people living in 94544, the county plans to launch a new vaccination site there that will stay open after hours and on Sundays, said Kimi Watkins-Tartt, who directs the Alameda County Public Health Department. That will supplement vaccine clinics at local health centers, like Tiburcio Vasquez, where shots are offered mostly during the work day and on Saturdays.
The county also plans to hold several pop-up clinics at events, schools and businesses, said Watkins-Tartt, to give people more opportunities to get their questions answered and feel comfortable about the vaccine.
“We are adding to what's already there,” she said. “We also just want to be in the community and wait for people to get ready, because even though we want people to get vaccinated as quickly as possible, we also know that a lot of this is also building trust.”
The county has already opened an inoculation site at the Hayward Adult School, in ZIP code 94541, and held pop-up clinics at local assisted living centers and other housing facilities, as well as at the Muhajireen Mosque in 94544 — all of which have helped to push up vaccination rates, said health officials.
With the virus still circulating as the state prepares to fully reopen next month and remove most mask mandates and social distancing requirements for people who are fully vaccinated, county officials plan to be in South Hayward and other impacted neighborhoods “indefinitely,” said Moss, the county health officer.
“I’ve come to believe that COVID is not going away any time soon, that people are going to get vaccinated or they'll get COVID,” he said. “I don't think people are going to be able to avoid it and avoid vaccination.”