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As a journalist, I’ve been covering a wide range of public health issues for more than a decade, from police violence to antibiotic resistance. I’m the former senior writer at Healthline.com and I reported on health issues for Oakland North and the East Bay Express while a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
During all of that, no one ever told me that one of the most powerful tools during a pandemic could be a staple gun.
Since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic in March 2020, every infectious disease expert I know kept repeating that nothing would end the pandemic until a vaccine was developed and distributed to enough people to establish herd immunity. And a pandemic during a contentious presidential election year made health messaging that much harder.
That’s where the staple gun comes in.
A few months back, The Oaklandside tweeted about launching printed flyer and text messaging campaigns to help people across Oakland get reliable information about vaccine distribution. I jumped at the opportunity to help out because I knew that increasing information about vaccines could help cut through rumors and anti-science rhetoric that can spread faster than the virus itself.
More importantly, it’s also a way to target Oakland zip codes where COVID has been especially devastating, including 94601, where I live.
Working with The Oaklandside, as a volunteer at first, I reached out to Evergreen Printing, a small independent printer in the Dimond, to print up postcards and flyers in English and Spanish designed by editor-in-chief Tasneem Raja at The Oaklandside. From there, I dropped off copies to a wonderful group of more volunteers who posted flyers around West Oakland, Chinatown, Fruitvale, and various parts of East Oakland that have had systemic health disparities long before anyone had heard of COVID-19.
My preferred mode of transportation has been my rollerblades, which I used since I had a paper route as a kid, and later while delivering flyers door-to-door following Hurricane Katrina or covering protests in Oakland and Vallejo.
So, with staple and tape guns stuffed into my bag, I skated all over the Fruitvale to put up flyers sharing information about The Oaklandside’s vaccine text messaging service, which is powered by a platform called Subtext, at bus stops, corner stores, and wherever else people would see them.
Many people I encountered along the way had questions for me: How much does the text service cost? How much does the vaccine cost? Both are free to you, I’d say, explaining that the whole goal of the texts is to get everyone vaccinated and put our SMS service out of business.
One woman at a bus stop on International had questions for me when the Coliseum mass vaccination site had a temporary mix-up. “What did they give those people?” she asked. The Pfizer vaccine, I said, just not a big enough dose that’s recommended. She seemed to be assured by my answer.
Many common concerns people had were how quickly the vaccine was developed and a general distrust of the government, with good cause. But others around Fruitvale were happy to tell me they were already vaccinated, mainly thanks to community clinics like Native American Health Center, La Familia, and La Clínica de la Raza, to name a few.
As the vaccination rollout began, people had questions about who qualified and when, as well as how to sign up for an appointment. Oaklandside’s vaccine guide, which has been read by hundreds of thousands of people since January, helps answer some of those questions, but the ability to target people via zip code with our text messages has helped people find vaccine sites meant specifically for them, because of their age, occupation, or location.
In March, I started working with The Oaklandside to also help answer people’s questions through our text service, most of which are about how and where to find vaccine appointments as close to their homes as possible. Nearly 2,800 people have signed up for the service so far, and we’re most happy when people text us asking to be removed from our list because they got their shots with help from our service.
As part of my assignment with The Oaklandside, I also spend more time per week than I care to admit refreshing half a dozen websites to find available appointments and tweet them out as @citizenkrans. (Pro tip: large sites like the Coliseum and Curative’s Golden Gate Fields operation are likely to drop batches of appointments on Friday afternoons.)
I’m now reporting for The Oaklandside on the vaccine effort as well. I started out by focusing on the Coliseum, when the federal government’s involvement was set to end, how the state and Alameda and Contra Costa counties would take over, and supply issues in the vaccine effort.
The Oaklandside also launched a series talking to people who live and work in Oakland’s hardest-hit communities about how and why they got vaccinated. The idea was to demystify the process and make it relatable. For example, an East Oakland pastor says she got vaccinated to lead by example, while a native Oaklander and essential worker says she got vaccinated to show her commitment to public safety and the common good.
We’re still far from reaching herd immunity, so my reporting will continue to focus on continued vaccine delivery, what works in getting people over their reluctance to get vaccinated, and the broader and lingering impacts the pandemic has had on public health.
As more shots get into more arms, there’s still going to be a lot of questions, from what it will look like when the state fully re-opens—yes, you should still plan on wearing a mask in public—to how we fix the many health inequities that will continue to impact people in Oakland and Alameda County long after we reach herd immunity.
This is (hopefully!) the single largest acute health crisis in our lifetimes. It showed the sheer lack of equity in how people are given the resources needed to stay safe and healthy. And that includes useful, actionable information that’s not full of medical, scientific, or bureaucratic jargon.
If you have questions that you’d like answered, sign up for The Oaklandside’s text service by texting your zip code to 510-621-5905 or tweet at me at @citizenkrans.