Bridging the vaccination gap: only 43% of eligible Alameda County Black residents are boosted against COVID
on October 14, 2022
On a sunny Monday morning this fall, dozens of Oakland residents lined up outside East Oakland’s Roots Community Health Center, waiting patiently to get tested, treated, or vaccinated against COVID-19, for free.
About 10 medical volunteers worked in five outdoor tents set up outside the single-story nonprofit medical center, providing one shot in the arm at a time.
It is all part of Roots’ community health outreach strategy to address worryingly low COVID-19 vaccination rates in Oakland’s underserved Black communities.
“We are aiming to get booster shots into the arms of as many Black families as possible,” said Roots Community Health Center CEO and founder Noha Aboelata. “We are not waiting this time.”
In Alameda County, just 43% of eligible African Americans had received at least two COVID-19 booster doses by the end of August. That rate is far lower than that of other racial groups: 59% of whites and 68% of Asians had received two boosters by that time, according to county records.
At the national level, the gap in vaccination rates is worse. Just 28% of African Americans had received two boosters as of August, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, compared to 55% of whites and 37% percent of Asian Americans.
The racial disparity concerns public health officials in Alameda, who are warning of potentially dire consequences — namely, a spike in cases and hospitalization this winter.
“Overall booster uptake isn’t as high as we would like going into the fall/winter season when we might expect a wave, particularly among communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” said Neetu Balram, public Information manager for the Alameda County Public Health Department.
That wave explains why the Health Department has partnered with community organizations and local clinics, like Roots, which offer resources “where we know impacted residents live and work,” Balaram said.
Roots Community Health Center spearheaded Oakland’s first-ever walk-in testing and treatment clinic for the local Black community early in 2021, during the pandemic’s first wave. Since then, the clinic has designated two days a week — Mondays and Wednesdays — for testing in Oakland and San Jose.
Roots aims to keep patients waiting for shots or tests no more than half an hour, Aboelata said. The clinic tries to return test results in less than 24 hours. Since it opened its walk-in centers in Oakland and San Jose, Roots has tested or vaccinated more than 120,000 people, no insurance or appointments required.
Aboelata, a family physician, said her clinic’s COVID work draws on lessons from the HIV pandemic, when racial disparities in infection rates “continued to get worse and worse and worse.”
During that pandemic, racial disparities stemmed from complacency, Aboelata said. In the current pandemic, she said, health officials wrongly assumed a lack of interest in vaccination in Black and brown communities, where many people were hesitant to get the vaccine because they were not convinced that it was safe for them. Officials then used that as a reason not to push harder for more equitable vaccine access.
Aboelata said that in addition to administering tests and shots, her center also works hard to provide accurate information about the coronavirus to the community.
Using platforms like YouTube and Twitter, Aboelata and her team livestream free sessions, titled “The People’s Health Briefing,” covering COVID-19 prevention, treatment, and vaccination. The sessions reach listeners and viewers in underserved Black communities in and outside Oakland.
“It’s been a lot, cutting through the noise,” she said.
For community members, Roots’s medical outreach has been indispensable.
Jamal Cobbs, 57, a father of six and a Roots patron, called Aboelata “our Mother Theresa.”
“This clinic is our only hope,” he said.
Eric Cato, a cancer survivor and beneficiary of Roots, feels similarly. “I am here with and for them as long as they will have me,” he said.
A March CDC study found that racial health inequities are a significant concern in achieving COVID vaccine equity.
So far, the agency has, through the American Rescue Plan and the Covid Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, committed $3 billion to launch programs and policies to bridge racial gaps in prevention and treatment across 64 jurisdictions, including California, which received the most funds. An additional $2.25 billion has been earmarked for health departments nationwide to strategically tackle COVID-19 health disparities along racial lines.
Ida Wilson, a qualitative researcher and project manager with the Center for Critical Public Health, said the nation needs to take more action. She said that early in the pandemic, as she watched a vaccination clinic set up near her mother’s home in Fruitvale, where COVID-19 rates were alarming, she realized that the people getting vaccinated there were coming from other neighborhoods.
“They were not the Black and brown people from Fruitvale,” she said. To her, it felt like they were “jumping the line.”
Wilson commended Roots for its approach, saying the federal government should adopt it.
“Imagine if the federal government, the state government, and the local public health county all have synchronized messaging,” she said. “The impact will heavily bridge the information gap and kill the suspicions and conspiracy theories.”
Vaccine appointments in Alameda County can be made through the Health Department’s website. While no appointments are necessary at Roots Community Health Center, registration is encouraged. More information is on Roots’ website.
Correction: This story was corrected to fix a misquotation from Ida Wilson.
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