On Feb. 11, the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department held a virtual town hall over Zoom, during which community members asked pre-selected questions about the COVID-19 vaccines.
Van Do-Reynoso, director of the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department (SBPHD), began the town hall, which was presented in English and Spanish, by reviewing how vaccines are distributed from the federal government to the county level, and how far the county has come in vaccinating their residents by demographic.
Currently, the county is vaccinating individuals aged 65 and older, though the latest shipment of Moderna vaccines has been delayed “due to severe weather conditions across the country,” SBPHD said in a press release on Tuesday. Do-Reynoso also said that as of Feb. 11, the county has used at least 81% of its current vaccine allotment from the federal government.
According to Do-Reynoso, SBPHD is and will continue working on serving the “safety net” population, which consists of houseless residents and undocumented community members; building partnerships with community leaders and organizations; removing barriers to receiving the vaccine; and building trust with the community.
Andrea Medina, the coordinator for the Latinx and Indigenous COVID-19 task force with SBPHD, said during the town hall that she hopes the discourse highlights the needs and concerns of Black, Asian, Indigenous and Latinx communities and the LGBTQIA community.
“We want to open healing spaces which are collaborative with the members of our community,” Medina said.
After Medina’s introduction, SBPHD Health Officer Henning Ansorg, SBPHD Deputy Director Paige Batson and Do-Reynoso answered a range of questions, from “Do [the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines] work differently because they come from different labs,” to “Why should I, as a Black and brown person, get the COVID-19 vaccine?”
Participants’ questions throughout the town hall yielded important answers, such as that the vaccine should provide immunity for at least at least a year. Ansorg said that both vaccines were tested on people of various races and ethnicities, as well as with differing underlying health conditions.
When asked what the vaccine is made of and if the vaccine contains the virus, Ansorg responded that the vaccine does not contain the virus; rather, it holds part of the genetic code from the virus that allows the body to produce the appropriate antibodies for protection against COVID-19. As for any side effects, Ansorg said that the most common symptoms include headaches, chills and fever. Although it is rare, some people do have an allergic reaction to the vaccine, he said, which is why recipients must remain at the clinic for 15 minutes of observation time after receiving the vaccine as a precautionary measure.
Ansorg responded to a question about vaccine efficacy with trial data from both Moderna and Pfizer, which found that their vaccines are 94% and 95% effective, respectively. Ansorg did clarify that the vaccine’s true efficacy won’t be known until six months to a year from now, after the vaccine has been administered for long enough to ascertain its efficacy in the long term; however, he stated that the trial data signals a bright outlook.
Upon being asked about equitable access to the vaccine, Do-Reynoso said that SBPHD will be working with its community service providers and partners to ensure that “vulnerable members of our community” have equitable access to the vaccine.
“We have allocated vaccines to community providers and to the pharmacies in communities with experience working with community members. Based upon our success and experience in other health efforts, we will create vaccine clinics where it’s safe in a culturally, linguistically appropriate space where it’s convenient,” Do-Reynoso said. “We will continue to work together with our community partners to make sure that vaccine clinics will happen in neighborhoods, community centers and in workplaces at a safe, and again, at a convenient time.”
As for how to get the vaccine, Batson said that individuals should register with MyTurn — a program that lets people know when it’s their turn to be vaccinated — to schedule an appointment for receiving the vaccine when they become eligible.
In addition, Do-Reynoso clarified that the vaccine is free and that neither health insurance nor a social security number is required in order to receive a vaccine.
Dalia Garcia, a manager with the Mixteco/Indígena Community Organizing Project, shared an experience of a colleague who was asked for his social security number and proof of health insurance when getting his vaccine.
Do-Reynoso said that she would ensure that community members wouldn’t be asked for their social security numbers in the future.
“I am bothered; I’m saddened by the experience that this Mixteco community member experienced. I will address it with our partners to ensure that moving forward, it doesn’t happen again, not only at that site, but other sites as well,” Do-Reynoso said. “I can see how being asked that could be very threatening and could prove to be a barrier to other community members coming forth to get a vaccine, so we will address that.”
Esron Gates, partner at Wealth Management Strategies, director of District 33-E3 and associate with Healing Justice, asked the panel if there was data showing that minority groups receive equal hospital treatment for COVID-19 as majority groups, especially when it comes to respiratory treatments and usage of Bamlanivimab, an antibody treatment for COVID-19. SBPHD has not collected data on this topic, but said they could conduct research on it moving forward.
Do-Reynoso closed the town hall by stating SBPHD’s commitment to transparency and prioritizing health equity.
“We acknowledge that the communities represented today along with several others have been historically under-resourced, and we intend to change that,” Do-Reynoso said. “This town hall forum is just the beginning of a conversation, and just one more step towards our mission in promoting health equity.”