Grandmother of Azucena, Oaklandside reporter after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in Oakland
Oaklandside reporter Azucena Rasilla's grandmother, after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in Emeryville. California is giving priority to seniors 65 and older. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Governor Gavin Newsom announced on January 13 that people 65 and older were eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, I began to frantically search—like many residents in the state who have older loved ones—for information on how and where vaccines would be administered. I was looking on behalf of my 90-year-old grandmother Lupe, who my family and I provide care for.

The first couple of weeks after the announcement was made were chaotic and confusing, since every county has its own vaccine distribution plan. I did my best to keep up with the most updated information, which was continually changing. I even reached out to my grandma’s primary care doctor, who is part of Alameda Health System, the county’s hospital network. The response that I received via email was deflating: “Our organization has established a task force to tackle the distribution of the covid vaccine to our senior patients. At this time, it is not available. Please check back with us next week for any updates.” 

As it would turn out, Alameda Health System did not start vaccinating patients 65 and older until last week.

One day in mid-January, as I was scrolling for answers on Twitter, I found hope in a tweet from Mission Local journalist Joe Eskenazi that said folks 65 and older could schedule an appointment through Kaiser, even if they weren’t a member. A few days later, I learned that other hospitals, including Sutter, were also scheduling appointments for non-patients. After a few unsuccessful tries, I finally managed to get a representative from Sutter on the phone to schedule an appointment for my grandmother, in mid-February. 

Even though it was a month away, the appointment felt like a small victory, a light at the end of a pitch-black and bumpy tunnel. Once I wrapped up the call, I texted friends who I knew also have grandparents or elder parents in their life. I also reached out to my brother, a dental assistant, who qualifies for the vaccine since he caught COVID-19 over the summer and was out of work for a month recovering.

A few days after scheduling my grandmother’s appointment with Sutter, Stanford Medical announced that it too would be vaccinating non-members 65 and older (those guidelines have since changed). I decided to give it a try, in hopes of getting my grandmother an earlier appointment. I found Stanford’s website instructions to be just as confusing as the other providers. But the following day, I managed to call and speak with a representative who helped me register my grandmother online and set up an appointment for the end of January. Again, I took to Twitter to provide an update, and the information I shared helped others schedule appointments for their loved ones. 

The entire process of setting up an appointment for my grandmother led me to realize just how difficult this must be for elders and others who are less internet savvy, lack access to wi-fi or a computer, do not speak the language, and don’t have a friend or family member advocating for them. How would they know how to set-up an appointment?

COVID-19 data from Alameda County Public Department reveals that while residents 65 and older account for the highest number of vaccines administered, there appear to be disparities in vaccine distribution along racial lines. Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and African Americans are receiving the vaccine in far lower numbers than whites across the county.

Stanford’s site for the COVID-19 vaccine in Emeryville. Credit: Amir Aziz

On January 31, I drove my grandma to the Stanford vaccination site in Emeryville. Stanford has several locations throughout the Bay Area, with Emeryville and Pleasanton being the closest for Alameda County residents. I received messages from others who had gotten vaccinated at the Pleasanton site, who praised how quick the whole process was. I hoped that our experience at Emeryville would be similar.

Once we arrived at the parking lot, I noticed that spaces were being filled up quickly and people were frantically circling around looking for parking. My grandma uses a wheelchair, but none of the accessible parking spaces were available. After a few minutes of circling, we found a spot.

As I wheeled her out of the car, I was surprised to see a line wrapped around the parking lot. People were asking one another who the line was for, and it soon became clear that everyone had to wait regardless of whether or not they had an appointment. An older man, a few people ahead of us, dragged his oxygen tank as the line advanced. It was a chilly afternoon. People were cold, frustrated, and unprepared for the long wait out in the parking lot, which took close to an hour.

Once we reached the entrance, a healthcare worker handed us disposable masks to put on over the ones we already had on. After a quick greeting, we were guided to another long line inside the facility, and we waited again. Once we reached the front of that second line, we were asked to sanitize our hands and pointed to two lines: one for patients, and one for non-patients. We got into the latter, and then came another long wait. 

We finally made it to the front. Was this the end of the waiting game? Not so fast. Once my grandmother’s identity and health insurance information was verified, we were guided to yet another line. This seemed to be the final step. A nurse called us into a smaller room, verified my grandma’s information once more, and administered her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

As I saw the nurse reaching for my grandma’s arm to give her the shot, a sense of relief rushed through my body. I could not believe that after almost a year of isolation and taking extra safety measures to keep my grandma safe, my family was closer to a reunion. 

In the past few months, my grandma has shown signs of depression. This past year is the longest she’s gone without seeing my sisters, or her son who travels from Mexico twice a year to visit her. While she is privileged to live with my parents and two of my siblings here in Oakland, and we all take turns caring for her, it’s still difficult for her not to see the rest of the family. 

After she was given the shot, a quick pinch that only made her flinch for a few seconds, the nurse guided us to a waiting area, where we were told to wait 15 minutes to monitor any potential allergic reactions. My grandma was a champ. She was aggravated by the long wait and ready to go. Not far from where we were waiting, two nurses were walking a man who was feeling sick. The nurses quickly took his vital signs. His blood pressure was fine, and so were his oxygen levels. I overheard one of the nurses telling the man that he was having a panic attack. I could relate. It had been almost a year since I’d been in a crowded, enclosed room. While the testing site room was large, and everyone wore a mask, it was challenging to remain safely distanced, no matter how many markings on the floor there were. 

I kept my grandma’s chair facing away from the man who was feeling ill and set a 15-minute timer on my phone. Soon, another line formed to set up an appointment for the second dose and exit the facility. By the time we reached the front, another 30 minutes or so had passed. 

Finally, we reached the end and were called up to set an appointment for the second dose. My grandma is scheduled to go back on Sunday, February 21. For that appointment, my sister will come along to stand in the line outside while my grandma waits in the car. Our hope is that by then, the staff will have figured out a way to avoid keeping elders waiting for so long.

After we got home, my grandma was fine. It wasn’t until hours later that she complained of a sore arm. The pain lasted through the night, but once she took a pain reliever the discomfort subsided, and she felt better. She had no allergic reactions or side effects.

Grandma Lupe receiving the COVID vaccine at the Stanford Medical site in Emeryville. Credit: Azucena Rasilla
Oaklandside reporter Azucena Rasilla’s grandmother, after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine in Emeryville. Credit: Amir Aziz

In all, the vaccination process took close to three hours. Our elders deserve better. In some other parts of the state, based on things I’ve read, the process seems to be relatively easier: Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano documented taking his father to a vaccination site in Santa Ana, and described the process as “seamless.” And Cap Radio News managing editor Nick Miller tweeted about his mom’s smooth experience at a drive-through vaccination site in Carmichael. After I tweeted about the process to set an appointment through Stanford Medical, San Francisco Chronicle photojournalist, Jessica Christian, also tweeted that her mom and grandpa got vaccinated through this medical provider. 

Here in Oakland, I hope that the soon-to-be-open massive vaccination site at the Coliseum helps alleviate some frustration over the lack of available appointments at other locations. There is still much to be done to properly reach our city’s most vulnerable communities with vaccinations and information about COVID-19. Sixty-seven of those who’ve died in Oakland from COVID-19 were Black residents, which is roughly 38% of the city’s total number of COVID-19 deaths, despite the fact that Black people make up just 24% of the city’s total population. Latinx residents in Fruitvale and East Oakland account for the second-largest number of deaths behind Black residents, with 38 deaths, or 22%, of the city’s total. (The Latinx community makes up about 26% of Oakland’s total population.)

While we wait for more vaccine doses to become available, we must remain vigilant by continuing to take care of our loved ones and by dispelling conspiracy theories or false information surrounding the vaccine. My grandma means the world to me and I would never put her in harm’s way. Among my immediate family, there was never any hesitation as to whether or not she would receive the vaccine. We have been patiently waiting for this moment. My sister, who is a nurse in Connecticut currently working in a COVID unit received the Moderna vaccine last month. My brother, a dental assistant, will get vaccinated at Sutter in Berkeley later this month. The rest of the family patiently awaits for when it is our turn. 

Although my grandma will soon be fully protected, my family will not let its guard down. We will continue double-masking, not gathering in groups with people outside of our household, and opt-out of outdoor dining in favor of takeout from our favorite local restaurants. We’ll remain alert, until enough people are vaccinated and we can truly say that this pandemic is behind us.

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.