Though only a few weeks ago it seemed near-impossible to snag a Covid-19 vaccine appointment, local doctors and organizers now find themselves with thousands of doses and not enough takers.
In what appears to be a national trend, vaccine supply in the most vulnerable parts of San Francisco and Alameda County is now outpacing demand. As shots sit idly in freezers, medics and organizers are scrambling to draw up new strategies to get them into arms; failure to use all the doses may threaten sites’ supply, said Diane Jones, a former UCSF HIV nurse and a leader in Unidos en Salud, a UCSF and Latino Task Force partnership that runs neighborhood vaccine sites in the Mission.
As of May 3, Unidos en Salud had more than 3,000 slots open for the next two weeks between their sites at 24th and Capp streets and 18th and Shotwell streets.
“Vaccine sites are closing. Others are having their vaccine allocation cut because they can’t use it,” said Jones in an email to Mission Local. And if they can’t find ways to distribute all the shots, she added, “this will likely happen to [Unidos en Salud] as well.”
This may also affect the journey to herd immunity, and public health experts have recently expressed doubt that the country will ever reach the 80 percent vaccination rate to get there.
In part, demand has slowed down because highly energized individuals already flocked to get a shot. Overall, at least 72 percent of San Franciscans 16 and older have received at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose, and there’s still “high uptake for appointments at our high-volume sites and mobile vaccine events,” a spokesperson at the Covid Command Center stated in an email to Mission Local. In Alameda County, about 71 percent of locals over 16 have received at least one shot.
The promise of inducting 12- to 15-year-olds to the vaccine-eligible may assuage some of the surplus as well. The Food and Drug Administration may approve this group to get a Pfizer shot as early as next week, the New York Times reported.
Meanwhile, on-the-ground volunteers working in underserved areas have found that persistent science questions and “conspiracies” are contributing to a severe decline in vaccine interest, though there was just an onslaught of demand a week before. Doses aren’t wasted and are standing by in freezers, but volunteers are still frantically trying to hand them out.
Aaron Ortiz, the CEO of the mental health organization La Familia Counseling Service in Hayward, said just two weeks ago the site La Familia has run was giving out between “700 and 1,000 shots a day.” But a few days before a vaccination pop-up was scheduled to launch last Saturday, Ortiz realized he had over 2,000 slots open that he had been “urgently” struggling to fill. Concerned residents are saying “no thanks” until they get questions answered.
“It’s multiple factors. I think the [Johnson & Johnson] vaccination pause did not help. I believe, too, that there is vaccine hesitation in the community. I also believe that people are being scared of the [second dose] side effects — getting really knocked out, or a headache,” Ortiz said. “They want to see the data.”
Though that data exists, and disproves certain concerns about vaccine inefficacy and the likelihood of severe side effects, vaccine access or information is not necessarily reaching every person, said Dr. Kim Rhoads, a UCSF associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, who also leads Umoja Health, an organization that has responded to Black Oakland residents in the pandemic.
So Rhoads and Ortiz are pivoting to mobile sites that aim to reach people “directly,” especially at heavily-trafficked spots in small pockets of Alameda County, like BART stations or the local Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Now, deeply embedded public health approaches will be necessary,” Rhoads said. “Salu Ribiero, our partner at Bay Area Phlebotomy Lab Services and I, joke about driving an ice cream truck around Alameda County in our target areas. But that may be exactly what we need.”
In the Mission, those left “have to be reached with whole other methods that are very labor-intensive,” Jones said. Unidos en Salud has been heading to the Hub at 701 Alabama St. three days a week, has released a public link to its vaccination sign-up website, and has expanded drop-in appointments for the first time.
Jones also hopes to gain more “granular Census data” for vaccine outreach. “This guided our outreach [for testing], as you witnessed. We don’t have that for vaccines. We have requested it.”
The other half of the battle is educating people, especially those from communities that have been historically wronged by public health institutions and remain skeptical. As many experts pointed out, “vaccine hesitancy” is complicated, and can be found across several demographics, including white conservatives and minorities. Polls have shown that about 30 percent of Americans are still unwilling to get a covid shot.
“The concept of hesitancy suggests that everyone should be running toward it or simply following the science,” Rhoads said. “Science hasn’t always been in the best interest of select communities. Wanting to learn more before making a decision about the vaccine is common and understandable.”
In San Francisco, these conversations are happening, too. Calle 24 Latino Cultural District has been broadcasting “Cafe con el doctor” each Sunday, where residents can discuss the vaccine with a medical expert on 24th Street. Church leaders are telling congregations to think of a “value” — like going to a ballgame or traveling — that allows the benefits of a vaccine to outweigh the potential negative impacts.
Now that 16-years-olds can receive the shot, both La Familia and Unidos en Salud are developing school outreach plans.
Still, it’s alarming for these organizers, especially because the communities they have worked in for months were also the ones most affected by the virus in their respective counties. Ortiz said he’s been desperately calling “everyone I know — the health department, community groups, even the Chamber of Commerce, all media” and opened the doses for everyone regardless of race or creed. “That does not matter to us,” he said. “Just that people have access to the vaccine.
For Unidos en Salud vaccinations at 24th and Capp and 18th and Shotwell, drop-in vaccinations are available every day as supply lasts. Second-dose Pfizer shots are available for people who had their first dose somewhere else and can’t return to that location, but people MUST BRING their vaccine card with them.
Capp and 24th runs 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday through Wednesday. This site is now open for anyone 16 and older. Shotwell and 18th runs Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For Alameda County residents and employees, La Familia Counseling Services is offering vaccination events. Contact them at (510) 881-5921 for more information.
Umoja Health is offering vaccines to those who live or work in Alameda County on Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Fridays, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday pop-ups from 9:30 to 4 p.m. Saturday locations are decided weekly, so check with Umoja Health.