Gilroy City Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz and a team of volunteers have been hitting the phones over the past couple of months, contacting seniors, farmworkers and others who have been most impacted by Covid-19, helping them set an appointment to receive a vaccine.
But the group has gotten some pushback.
Many residents have said they don’t trust the vaccine. Others, meanwhile, are afraid of the possible side effects. A contingent have outright refused because some national Catholic bishops have spoken out against Johnson & Johnson’s use of lab-grown cells. The Vatican, however, has said the vaccine is “morally acceptable.”
With Gilroy experiencing the highest Covid-19 case rate in the county since the pandemic began, and with a vaccine slowly becoming more accessible to South County residents, reaching all Gilroyans and educating them on the vaccine is critical, Armendariz said.
This can be achieved through people known as “trusted messengers,” or credible community members who are well-known and respected.
Armendariz pointed to two local Catholic priests, Jose Antonio Rubio and Michael Hendrickson of St. Mary Parish, who have both received the vaccine and have spread the word through their congregation.
Armendariz’s mother, who had Covid-19 earlier in 2020 and has now received both doses of the vaccine, is sharing her experience with others as she encourages them to set an appointment.
“She said the vaccine will keep you alive,” Armendariz said. “You might go through a little achiness for one day, but at least you’ll be alive at the end of it. With coronavirus, there is no guarantee.”
The Covid-19 challenges, however, go beyond one’s personal beliefs and fears.
Virus highlights disparities
Gilroy’s west and east sides are demographically different. The west is more affluent, home to the Eagle Ridge community, with a larger population of retirees in single-family homes. The east, meanwhile, is home to a higher volume of front-line workers living in high-density neighborhoods and households, making it easier for the virus to spread.
“Many service workers live on this side of town,” Armendariz said. “They have a job that can’t be performed from home. Many of us also live in multigenerational households. We can’t afford to live in separate households.”
According to Census data, the wealthiest area in Gilroy is in Census Tract 5125.03, an area west of Santa Teresa Boulevard and bordered by Christopher High School to the north and First Street to the south. The median household income is $159,127, with 32 percent of the 2,639 households reporting income of more than $200,000, Census data shows.
The tract is also one of the most vaccinated and least infected by Covid-19, likely attributed to its large population of those age 65 and older, as well as consisting of mostly single-family homes. As of March 2, 79 percent of those eligible to receive the vaccine have been administered a first dose, according to county health data, while 489 residents of the total population of 9,105 have had Covid-19 since March 2020.
The county’s Census tract dashboard, which is updated weekly, only tracks vaccinations administered to senior citizens. Farmworkers, educators, childcare and other sectors only became eligible for the vaccine in Santa Clara County on Feb. 28.
On the opposite end, the poorest area of Gilroy as determined by Census data is Census Tract 5126.03, which is bordered by downtown to the west, Highway 101 to the east and areas around East Tenth Street. That tract has a median household income of $66,176, with its average household size at 4.12 compared to 3.45 in the wealthiest tract. Census data also shows that 32 percent of residents in the area have an income that is below 150 percent of the poverty level.
The 5126.03 tract has by far the highest Covid-19 case rate per 100,000 residents in the city at 19,961, as well as the highest positivity rate at 18.1. It is also the second least vaccinated, with 59 percent of the 267 eligible residents receiving the first dose as of March 2, according to county data.
The Census also considers 5126.03 the hardest-to-count tract in Gilroy, based on its crowded households and large population of monolingual Spanish speakers.
The 5125.03 tract is also one of the healthiest overall. According to California Healthy Places Index (HPI), the tract has healthier community conditions than 97.5 percent of other California tracts. The HPI provides overall scores and data that predict life expectancy and compare community conditions that shape health such as education levels and income, among other things.
The 5126.03 tract, on the other hand, is the least healthiest area in Gilroy, according to the HPI, with a score of just 21.6 percent.
State’s vaccine plan doesn’t apply to Gilroy
Census tracts and the HPI have been under scrutiny over the past week following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement that the state would set aside 40 percent of its vaccines for communities in the lowest quartile of the index.
The plan, which Newsom pitched as a way for the state to prioritize disadvantaged and Latino communities that have seen a disproportionate impact from the pandemic, would not apply to Gilroy.
Only one tract in Gilroy, 5126.03, is placed in the lowest quartile of the HPI. The state, however, is determining which communities qualify for the plan through zip codes, and not census tracts, as the state’s interactive HPI map does. As such, Gilroy’s 95020 zip code is placed in the third quartile, or the second healthiest considered by the HPI.
Bay Area lawmakers were ready to hold a press conference on March 8 to call on state officials to alter the plan, where Armendariz and Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine were scheduled to speak, but abruptly canceled the gathering to instead reportedly meet with those representatives.
“The Governor’s Office has expressed a committed (sic) to providing a more formal response to the concerns expressed by Bay Area communities on the vaccine equity rollout issues within the next 24 hours,” State Senator Dave Cortese (D-San Jose) said in a statement. “We are working collaboratively with them and are optimistic that hard-hit areas in the Bay Area that were overlooked will now be included in the state’s prioritization.
“Not every community has felt the effects of this pandemic equally. We need targeted efforts to address the longstanding racial and economic disparities that have been only intensified by Covid-19.”
Only two percent of Bay Area residents qualify for the state’s plan. That’s despite the fact that the Bay Area makes up 20 percent of California’s population, and that several communities have been deeply impacted by the pandemic both economically and health-wise, lawmakers stated in a press release.
Santa Clara County has no zip codes that qualify for the plan, according to a data sheet obtained by this publication that shows in which HPI quartile every California zip code stands.
Cortese said the state should instead recalibrate its definition of “hard-hit Covid-19 impacted communities based on Census tract data from counties so that no hard-hit Census tracts are left behind.”
According to state data, 40 percent of Covid-19 cases and deaths have occurred in the lowest quartile of the HPI. The rate of infections for households making less than $40,000 per year (11.3 percent) is more than double that of households with an income of $120,000 or more (5.2 percent). At the same time, California’s wealthiest populations are being vaccinated at nearly twice the rate of its most vulnerable populations.
Newsom also emphasized the toll the pandemic has had on Latino communities. According to state data, about 55 percent of the state’s 3.5 million cases have been in people of Latino descent. Those Californians have also accounted for roughly 46 percent of the state’s 54,000 Covid-19-related deaths.
Local data closely mirrors those numbers. In Santa Clara County, Latinos have accounted for nearly 51 percent of the total 111,952 cases since March 2020, despite making up only a quarter of the total population. About 28 percent of the total 1,827 deaths as of March 8 have been people of Latino descent.
Farmworkers get vaccinated
Public health experts and labor advocates say that ongoing, mobile clinics such as the two-day events at Christopher Ranch in Gilroy and Monterey Mushrooms in Morgan Hill—where eligible residents have easy access to the vaccine within their communities—will prove crucial in containing the pandemic as quickly as possible.
Monterey Mushrooms owner Shah Kazemi said bringing the Covid-19 vaccine to the farmworkers—rather than forcing them to seek out a central vaccination location—is a natural way to overcome the challenges in reaching frontline workers who might not speak English or are not tech-savvy enough to make an online appointment.
Christopher Ranch employees received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine March 4-5, and officials planned to vaccinate about 1,000 farmworkers over the two-day clinic.
The company partnered with Santa Clara County Public Health to host the clinic, becoming the next major farmer in the county to vaccinate its workers following the efforts by Monterey Mushrooms.
Executive Vice President Ken Christopher said the ranch has been working with the county over the past month to host the clinic, which was made easier thanks to a large tent set up in the parking lot that serves as a temporary break room per public health guidelines.
Farmworkers became eligible to receive the vaccine on Feb. 28.
Christopher and his father, CEO Bill Christopher, were the first to receive the vaccine on March 4 as a way to set an example of the importance of being vaccinated, he said.
“This is the start of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Ken Christopher said. “It’s been a hard year. All of our employees are essential workers. We’re proud to offer this to them, because they’re the ones that keep our farm going. If not for them, we have nothing.”
Ranch employees were given paid time to participate in the clinic, Christopher said, adding that about 90 percent of the employees were expected to receive the shot.
Bill Christopher said the ranch wanted to make it easy for its employees to get vaccinated by bringing the clinic to them.
“We felt the safest thing at this time for our employees was to give them an opportunity to get the vaccine if that’s what their choice was,” he said.
Ken Christopher said the ranch has experienced a few Covid-19 cases among its staff over the past year, but gave praise to Human Resources Director Richard Plato for his work in keeping employees safe.
“Everyone here is loyal to us, so in offering this we hope we’re showing we’re loyal back to them,” he said.
United Farm Workers Foundation Executive Director Diana Tellefson-Torres, at the Feb. 28 clinic at Monterey Mushrooms, said she has been part of an ongoing effort to convince the state to ensure that farmworkers in California are prioritized in the line for the Covid-19 vaccine. She cited a UCSF study that found that Latino farmworkers in California have seen a 59-percent increase in death since the pandemic started.
According to county data, as of March 8, 338,589 first doses of the vaccine have been administered in Santa Clara County, with a little more than 41,000 Latino residents receiving at least a first dose.
A mass vaccination site is open by appointment at Gilroy High School Monday through Friday from 8:30am-4:45pm. For information on vaccination sites and to schedule an appointment, visit sccfreevax.org.
Tony Nuñez and Michael Moore contributed to this report.