An advertisement for free vaccine doses outside of Alternatives in Action High School and St. Bernard's Church in East Oakland. Credit: Brian Krans

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In mid-December, when the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Alameda County, it was nearly impossible for most people to sign up for a shot, and even those who qualified—mostly healthcare workers—had trouble booking appointments because of the short supply.

Since then, vaccinations have been ramping up. The number of people getting vaccinated peaked April 16, when everyone over the age of 16 became eligible. The county reported 24,175 residents received at least one dose that day. Now, the county reports that more than 68% of residents over the age of 16 have at least one dose in them. 

The numbers appear to be dropping off in recent days and far more vaccine appointments remain open. On Tuesday afternoon there were dozens of open same-day appointments available on the state’s vaccine rollout website, MyTurn.ca.gov, at the Oakland Coliseum mass vaccination site, and there was no line at the joint FEMA-state-county mobile vaccine clinic hosted by Alternatives in Action High School and its neighbor, St. Bernard’s Church in East Oakland.

“We’re in an inflection point where supply is ahead of demand,” said Dr. Laura Miller, Community Health Center Network’s chief medical officer and clinician at Lifelong Medical Care.

Medical experts and those working vaccination sites aren’t entirely sure why there’s a sudden lull in people getting shots, but they’re continually working to address people’s concerns, and help people who don’t have easy access to transportation or other resources. 

The sudden surplus comes after the highly motivated vaccine seekers—like healthcare workers and educators headed back to the classroom—have had ample opportunity to get their shots and eligibility is no longer tied to occupation or health status. Current policies are intended to make the vaccine as easy as possible to get, including the continued use of walk-up community clinics that cut through as many barriers to care as possible. 

At St. Bernard’s on 62nd Avenue, signs zip-tied to a fence at the entrance relay four key points: they’re offering Pfizer shots, no insurance is needed, the shots are free, and walk-ins are welcome. 

“The signs have gotten longer as the questions came in,” said Robert Martin, division supervisor for Mobile Team 4, one of the four teams that use federal, state and county resources to run pop-up community vaccination clinics in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. 

The clinic at Alternatives in Action High School and St. Bernard’s runs 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Thursday. After that it moves to Lighthouse Mosque at 620 42nd St. in West Oakland, where they’ll continue to give out first doses of the Pfizer vaccine before returning three weeks later for second doses. 

On Tuesday, their first day back at Alternatives in Action High School and St. Bernard’s Church, things were a little slower than they had been two weeks earlier when the line of people waiting to get their shots went around the block. That was also shortly after everyone 16 or older in Alameda County—and then California and now the nation—became eligible for the vaccine. 

Now that the mad dash has cooled off, clinics large and small have more open appointments available. Just weeks ago, virtually all the appointments at Berkeley’s Curative site would be claimed within hours of making them public, but now hundreds remain open at any give time. The same goes for the Coliseum. 

Alternatives in Action High School just started welcoming back its most pandemic-impacted students for in-person instruction. The school is located in the 94621 zip code, which has one of the highest COVID-19 caseloads in Alameda County. 

“As soon as it was a possibility, we jumped at it,” said Sierra Thai-Binh, Alternative’s assistant director, about opening up the community vaccination site. 

Having the site that close to the school meant now-eligible students ages 16 and up could just walk across the street to get their shots. 

“Some of them were really excited and came right over,” Thai-Binh said about the students, adding many already had vaccinated or at-risk family members living in their home. 

Others, she said, were not as motivated and voiced concerns about extremely rare side effects like seizures. “Most folks get their information from social media.”

The Rockefeller Foundation recently released their findings from a survey asking people about their access to, and confidence in COVID-19 vaccines. From Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, they surveyed 2,517 non-white BIPOC adults, including 503 Oakland residents. 

The survey found that 59% of Oaklanders knew someone who had already taken the vaccine, the highest of the other cities surveyed: Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, and Newark, New Jersey. 

Only 7% of Oaklanders said they would “definitely not” get the vaccine, but 84% said they would, whether right away or with more information. 

Oakland had the highest confidence of any city, with 57% saying they “definitely” would get a COVID-19 vaccine. Newark, the lowest, was 37% percent. 

Other survey highlights about how Oaklanders view the COVID-19 vaccine:

  • The majority (61-66%) believe the vaccine is safe and effective
  • More people than not (57% to 62%) agree there’s not enough information about how the vaccine may interfere with other health conditions
  • More than half of Oaklanders say they don’t have enough information about where they will be able to get the vaccine
  • 41% of Oaklanders say they have a vaccine site that is easily accessible to their homes, while 32% aren’t sure

There’s one data point where Oakland stands out the most:  When asked if they would take the COVID-19 vaccine to protect their loved ones, 85% of Oaklanders said yes, with only 10% saying no. 

Other high ranking reasons motivating Oakland residents to get their shots include having more information about the vaccine, assurance the vaccine is free (it is), a delivery site close to their homes, and more time to understand if the vaccine works. 

Miller, the clinician, has seen how giving people extra time to think about the vaccine has paid off. She said one of her patients kept replying “maybe” when asked about the vaccine in February and March, but this month she was eager to get the shot. So, what changed?

“She talked to people. She didn’t want to be one of the first,” Miller said. “It’s not okay to push people. You just need to have a ton of conversations.”

Some of those conversations need to be had one-on-one with patients and trusted sources. 

The Rockefeller survey found Oaklanders trusted their doctor and healthcare providers the most to provide them with reliable information. The next most trustworthy sources for Oaklanders were the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. The greatest amount of distrust was held for religious leaders, the news media, and state and local government.  

Alameda County officials are finding pop-up mobile clinics hosted by trusted community organizations are helping people overcome barriers to the vaccine, including location and ease of access.

“We would like to expand that model. It has worked very well,” Kimi Watkins-Tartt, director of Alameda County’s public health department, said last week during the county’s vaccine community advisory group. 

Alameda County currently has a request for proposals out for a contractor to take over COVID-19 mobile vaccination operations for “specific priority groups,” namely populations and zip codes that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Responses to the RFP are due May 10 with the intent of picking a contractor later that month and running the sites through the end of July. 

Until then, sites using resources from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and California’s Office of Emergency Services remain a vital tool in targeted vaccine distribution.

“Not everyone can drive to the Coliseum,” Martin, the Mobile Team 4 supervisor, said. 

Wearing an orange reflective vest and holding a clipboard with color-coded assignments broken down by weeks, the 60-year-old retired wildland firefighter from Tucson looked over the parking lot separated by orange cones and yellow caution tape. Some people were sitting under one group of blue tents as workers asked them some basic health-related questions while others waited the required 15 minutes post shot with medics on standby in case anyone had an allergic reaction. 

To Martin, running a vaccine site is just like managing a wildfire, just with vaccinators and pharmacy nurses instead of firefighters. 

“It’s the same job. You’re just like the conductor of an orchestra,” he said, adding it’s “gratifying” to help underserved people. “It’s been great. It’s kind of an honor to serve your country.”

Every day, each of the four mobile team sites have 504 doses to give out. “The goal is to come back with no vials,” Martin said. 

On Tuesday, as foot traffic trickled in, the site had only given out about 60 doses as of 2 p.m. Any unthawed and unused doses at the end of the day are packed up and taken with an Alameda County deputy escort to be given out at the Coliseum, which runs three hours later than the mobile sites. 

As for the slow down in foot traffic at the site, Martin said he’s not sure why it’s happening. 

“If we only give out 100 doses, that’s still 100 doses that weren’t in arms when we started,” he said. 

Miller said the community sites will continue to provide convenient access to vaccines for people whenever they’re ready and healthcare providers need to continue to tailor their message to answer questions people have about the vaccine. 

“It’s local. It’s right there where people want and need it,” she said. “We just need to keep our ears wide open.”