‘It’s a win for everybody’: Nonprofits bring vaccine doses to underserved L.A. communities

Nearly 6.5 million doses have been administered in Los Angeles county, but neighborhoods in Southeast Los Angeles still lag far behind higher-income areas in vaccination rates. Non-profit organizations are aiming to close this gap.

As soon as Martha Escobedo received her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, she told anyone who would listen. Many of her neighbors in the Florence-Firestone area of Southeast Los Angeles were seeking vaccine advice from friends and family, and Escobedo wanted to lead by example.

“People say, ‘Oh, you go first, and then I’ll do it,’” she said. “So I tell them, ‘I have done it, I’m comfortable with it.’”

Escobedo received her vaccine at a site in nearby South Gate run by the Southeast Los Angeles (SELA) Collaborative, a network of organizations dedicated to revitalizing 10 local communities. The decade-old group has hosted several vaccination events in partnership with FEMA through an eight-week pilot program.

The SELA Collaborative has now vaccinated more than 6,000 people and is one of several nonprofits in Los Angeles County playing a community-focused, often personalized, role in the distribution process. While getting shots into arms remains a massive government undertaking at every level, these organizations have operated in their respective areas for years — generations, in some cases — and their deep roots help them identify and address any vaccination barriers.

From Southeast Los Angeles to Chinatown, the nonprofits primarily serve under-resourced communities where the pandemic has hit hard. More people per capita have died from COVID-19 in Southeast L.A. than anywhere else in the county.

“We don’t have an option,” Escobedo said. “It’s either you die, or you live.”

Nearly 6.5 million doses have been administered in the county, but neighborhoods in Southeast Los Angeles still lag far behind higher-income areas in vaccination rates. As of May 20th, 80.6% of the Cheviot Hills population in west L.A. had received at least one dose, compared with 42.6% of Florence-Firestone residents.

Organizations such as the SELA Collaborative, Inclusive Action for the City, Chinatown Service Center, and The Laundry Truck LA aim to close this gap.

Aware that residents tend to visit familiar locations, the SELA Collaborative set up mobile vaccination clinics in centrally located areas. This month, the group opened a clinic at the Southeast-Rio Vista YMCA.

Dr. Wilma Franco, the group’s executive director, said that some people remain skeptical about being vaccinated, especially after extremely rare cases of blood clots from the Johnson & vaccine received national media attention.

“Data without context can create a lot of fear,” Franco said. “If anything, we should have more confidence in the vaccines because the scientists are really paying attention to anything that may seem odd and addressing it before it becomes a bigger concern.”

In mid-April, the FDA and CDC resumed the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Now, patients will receive a warning about potential side effects in the form of a fact sheet.

Franco highlighted the importance of effective messaging.

“We’re not saying, ‘Get the vaccine so you’ll never catch COVID or become ill,’” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Get the vaccine so that if you’re exposed [to COVID], you don’t lose your life.’”

“Unfortunately, the Southeast region has lost way too many family members,” Franco added. “I know of families who have… lost six, seven people.”

Many Southeast L.A. residents who do want to get vaccinated face other challenges. A lack of internet access, for example, prevents people from making appointments in the first place.

“Expecting people to be able to do it is quite insensitive and unrealistic,” Franco said. “My mother doesn’t use a computer. Every time she needs to sign up for something, I have to sign her up.”

Franco also emphasized that essential workers may not have the spare time to navigate a registration website. The SELA Collaborative allowed people to schedule appointments through a condensed Google Form instead.

Inclusive Action for the City, a nonprofit that focuses on the welfare of street vendors through its “Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign,” anticipated another barrier: Many unlicensed vendors do not realize they are eligible for the vaccine regardless of their immigration status.

Erika Hernandez, a technical assistance associate at Inclusive Action, explained that “unless you know that you can write down a bunch of zeros for a social security number, folks think you need a[n] [actual] number to register for an appointment.”

To ensure people could receive their vaccines in a familiar environment, Inclusive Action organized a clinic at McCarty Memorial Christian Church in West Adams. There, 513 individuals were vaccinated.
The Rev. Eddie Anderson collaborated with Inclusive Action because he believes that his church plays a central role in both the spiritual and physical health of the community.

“It’s aligned with my theological view on what we are called to do as a church,” he said. “The church is not just there to save souls but also bodies.”

Anderson said that the church’s history of speaking out on social justice issues, such as Black Lives Matter, makes it a credible institution in the area.

“The church is usually a trusted messenger,” he said. “[People] have seen us do work in the streets, so they know we’re about equity. I think that helps folks feel more comfortable.”

“I just stick with the science and the facts and the faith, and folks will make their own decisions,” he added. “If you can have people leave with a little more hope that things are going to get better… that’s totally worth it.”

For Angie Gil, whose father has operated an ice cream truck in the East L.A. community of El Sereno for 15 years, the campaign feels deeply personal. Some of her aunts, uncles, cousins, extended family and neighbors are vendors or were vendors at some point in their lives.

The L.A. City Council’s ban on unlicensed vendors blocked them from receiving federal aid in 2020. This prompted Inclusive Action to launch its “Street Vendors Emergency Fund,” for which Gil volunteered. She also scheduled vaccine appointments for vendors at McCarty Memorial.

Before Inclusive Action’s vaccination event, Gil could not find nearby, smaller sites for her father. She mostly came across vaccine megasites, like Dodger Stadium.

“It can be confusing how to get there, to know which entrance to take, looking at signs directing you that maybe aren’t in your language,” Gil said.

Referring to the church, which is within walking distance of her home, Gil described it as “having a vaccine site in your backyard.”

Chinatown Service Center, a health and human services organization which has served the Chinatown community and neighboring areas since 1971, has also taken a localized approach to vaccinations.

One of the center’s vaccine clinic leaders, Jason Liang, said that a long-lasting relationship with the Chinatown population has made its vaccination process as smooth as possible.

“For the residents to have an organization as a source of information that they can trust has really helped,” Liang said. “It’s allowed the community to be more receptive to vaccines.”

Liang cited transportation as a common vaccine barrier for Chinatown residents. This issue inspired the center to establish a Chinatown site that operates Monday through Friday.

Despite Chinatown’s geographic proximity to Dodger Stadium, numerous residents cannot drive, making the stadium largely inaccessible. Chinatown’s percentage of residents 65 and older is one of the highest in L.A. County.

“It’s not that far, it’s a couple of miles away,” Liang said of the stadium. “But for a lot of our residents, those couple of miles might as well be across the ocean.”

The national increase in anti-Asian crimes “just reaffirms why we’re out here,” Liang said. “It really motivates us to double down on providing these vaccines for this population.”

L.A. County’s homeless population is another overlooked group, and are 50% more likely to die from COVID-19 than members of the general population.

The Laundry Truck LA, which offers free mobile laundry services for unhoused individuals, has played a unique role in the vaccination effort. When fashion designer Jodie Dolan began volunteering to help the homeless, she noticed that people took showers, only to change back into their dirty clothes.

Realizing that clean clothing not only helps restore the dignity of someone experiencing homelessness but also allows people to take advantage of crucial opportunities, such as job interviews, Dolan launched The Laundry Truck LA in 2019. Its presence at vaccination sites has helped increase trust among homeless people.

When the office of City Councilman Gil Cedillo, who represents District 1, asked Dolan to provide free laundry at a clinic at MacArthur Park, she immediately agreed to participate.

“Any time we can have shared services that help bring more people to the [vaccination] area, it’s a win for everybody,” she said.

Because her truck visits MacArthur Park every Friday, Dolan already knew many of the people who frequent the area, which motivated them to get vaccinated.

“When there are established relationships and you know everyone’s name,” Dolan said, “it makes the entire process a bit easier.”

Ultimately, Escobedo feels optimistic that most people in the Southeast region will choose to get vaccinated because they care about the welfare of their communities.

“We need to get together, educate ourselves and others on [the vaccines] and make sure we follow through,” Escobedo said. “Because it’s for the well-being of everybody.”

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