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Berkeley Grapples With Obstacles To Equitable Vaccine Rollout

The challenge of vaccinating Berkeley’s houseless, undocumented, and elderly populations has been made greater by the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

While the spread of COVID-19 has run rampant for over a year now, the end is in sight. The last piece of the immunity puzzle is distribution of the new COVID vaccines; figuring out a way to make the vaccine available, accessible, and easy-to-get for all people living in the United States. 

The intricate challenges of efficient and equitable vaccine rollout are ones that every state and municipality has grappled with. Berkeley has had several vaccine sites and, in trying to make the vaccine as widely available as possible, most of them do not require health insurance, payment of any kind, documentation, or most other materials normally required to receive medical treatment. 

Golden Gate Fields, a semi-operational horse race track doubling as a vaccination site, administers an average of 1500 doses per day through each patient’s car window, Nu Phaeya told the Jacket.  Phaeya works at the Golden Gate Fields site, which is open every Tuesday through Saturday from 6 AM to 7 PM. According to Phaeya, the Golden Gate Fields’ site requires each patient to make an appointment before showing up to get vaccinated. The site does have a waiting list for when there are extra doses, which they distribute on a first-come-first-serve basis. 

To ensure that as many people can receive the vaccine as possible, the Golden Gate Fields site only requires patients to bring some form of identification that connects the patient to their name — whether that be a US passport, drivers license, or any other form of identification. “It can even be an ID from Mexico,” said Phaeya. The site requires neither health insurance nor payment, and patients are able to receive a vaccine without either of them. Phaeya said, “We try to vaccinate every person possible.”

Robin Candler is the Deputy Director of the Street Based and Justice Involved Behavioral Health Services at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. She stated, “People of color have been hit harder by COVID-19, and the number of people of color that have now gotten vaccinated is lagging far behind the white numbers.” According to the New York Times, as of early March, the rate of vaccination for Black Americans was only half the rate for white people, with the lag for Hispanic people being even greater.

The pandemic has posed equity gaps in many spheres, from distance learning to the workforce, and now vaccinations. Some groups have been left behind when it comes to getting vaccinated — starting with those who don’t have access to technology and can’t make a vaccine appointment. Candler mentioned that many efforts have been made to combat this issue, like “mobile vaccine programs where vaccines are brought to supportive housing sites, shelters, and residential programs, and setting up mass vaccination sites that don’t require appointments and let eligible adults drop-in.”

Most recently, for instance, LifeLong Medical Care ran a mobile vaccine clinic initiative to vaccinate homeless shelter residents and Peoples’ Park inhabitants in Berkeley. Especially as many houseless people are hard to track down, the appeal of Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen COVID-19 vaccine has been more apparent than ever. As a single-dose shot, this vaccine has risen to greater familiarity and appeal for populations for whom it would be more difficult to receive both doses of either the Pfizer Inc. vaccine or the Moderna, Inc. vaccine. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine appeared to be a promising contender to help vaccinate these individuals within Berkeley, starting with the mobile vaccination clinics it has run. However, its suspension on April 13 by US federal agencies has thrown a potential wrench into the operation, adding to the challenge of vaccinating those who are difficult to track down for a second dose. 

In addition to equity gaps, many older adults — the demographic who were eligible early for receiving the vaccine — have had to rely on their more tech-savvy family members and friends to book a vaccine appointment for them. “Technology is often a barrier for older adults. I have heard from countless middle aged adults who have spent time getting their parents and other relatives appointments, because the process was often too challenging for their older family members,” said Candler. 

Candler added that, while many have trouble accessing the vaccine, a rapidly rising number of Americans don’t even have a suitable healthcare program. Healthcare, for most people, is provided by their employer. Even before the great unemployment generated by the pandemic, an increasing number of Americans have gone without healthcare. Those affected by this have been disproportionately people of color and low-income families, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This same phenomenon of inequality has occurred in the vaccine process as well. Candler concluded, “Healthcare has almost always been stronger for whiter and wealthier populations in our society, and during this pandemic it has been no different.”

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