Communities unite to lobby federal officials on COVID

By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — Lynwood Mayor Marisela Santana believes the mostly Latino communities in Southeast Los Angeles County are being ostracized in the struggle to get assigned a super COVID-19 vaccination hub, and suburban pharmacies that offer shots for essential workers, the elderly and people with disabilities are part of the problem.

The need for the vaccinations is so dire, she said, that her city became ground zero of reported infections by the county’s Department of Public Health, with a total of 12,657 cases as of Feb. 18 in the city with less than 70,000 residents.

Santana, South Gate City Councilwoman Denise Diaz and representatives from nine other cities have banded together to form SELA United, with the goal to voice their concerns about inequities in vaccines distribution to President Joe Biden, and devise solutions for communities burdened with higher positive case rates and deaths than wealthier towns with whiter populations.

On Feb. 10, SELA United held a 45-minute virtual gathering with Eduardo Cisneros, a member of the White House COVID Response Team, to expose racial and economic inequities sustained by working-class residents in the area during the pandemic, and pitched to start a mass vaccination center at South Gate Park, or use facilities at the Commerce or Bell Gardens Casinos.

“We talked about our needs to bring more vaccines to our region,” Santana said. “It was important for all to show a united front in asking the federal government for resources for our region.”

SELA United is composed of elected city officials from Bell, Lynwood, Commerce, Cudahy, Vernon, South Gate, Paramount, Maywood, Huntington Park, Hawaiian Gardens and Bell Gardens.

Communities in Southeast Los Angeles suffer from a “doughnut effect,” she explained, where participant pharmacies allocated with vaccines like CVS, Walgreens and retail stores like Albertsons and Ralphs are scattered in the suburbs, but none are allocated in the area.

“We are always in the middle of the doughnut,” Santana said. “We are overlooked. Data shows we are one of the most infected regions.

“Our problem is that our families are essential workers. We are not like other communities who can take time off work. We have to go out to work.”

The U.S Census Bureau estimates that at the end of 2019, three months before the pandemic was declared in March 2020, 429,800 people lived in the 11 cities.

Data compiled from the county’s Department of Public Health shows that 85,178 area residents tested positive for the coronavirus, nearly 20% of the entire population, and 961 died as of Feb. 18.

Census data indicates that Latinos compose 83.5% of the region’s population, with South Gate and Bell Gardens reporting the highest figures at 96%, and Hawaiians Gardens the lowest at 80%.

For her part, South Gate’s Diaz said she is hopeful the Biden administration will ramp up allocations of the vaccines to a region battered by the lethal disease, compounded by the negligence and disregard for the area from former President Donald Trump.

Diaz spearheaded the virtual conference with Cisneros, a graduate of Cal State Long Beach who lived in Huntington Park, another blue collar community hit hard by pollution and lack of access to quality health care.

When Diaz reached out to the White House, the response came soon.

“They got back to me within 48 hours and gave us the opportunity to discuss issues and solutions,” Diaz said. “They promised us they will put us in the list of high priorities,” Diaz said.

Diaz told Cisneros and Julie Rodriguez, the director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, that cities in Southeast Los Angles communities need mobile units to inoculate adults who are computer illiterate, lack access to electronic devices to register at large inoculation sites like Dodger Stadium and the Inglewood Forum, and have underlying health conditions that place them at risk if they venture out of their homes.

Furthermore, SELA United explained, many residents rely on buses to go out and about, and cannot spend a day traveling to and from Cal State L.A. or any of the centers where they may be lucky to sign up for the coveted vaccines.

Both Santana and Diaz greeted the announcement made by California Gov. Gavin Newsom about partnering with Blue Shield to roll out within the next weeks a program to get mobile units in all 58 counties to administer vaccines at the homes of enrollees without transportation or unable to visit the super sites.

The group also lobbied for quarantine lodges to address the needs of people with different housing needs, testing centers and vehicles equipped for vaccinations.

“SELA is a community that’s been the heaviest and strongest impacted by the pandemic in the entire country,” Diaz said. “We don’t have the luxury of tele-working because we are essential workers,” plus people are afraid of bringing the virus home and transmitting it to their relatives.

Lying between the Long Beach (710) Freeway to the east and the Alameda Corridor to the west, South Gate children are diagnosed with asthma, carry respiratory inhalers, suffer from obesity and diabetes, and now their families are pounded by the virus onslaught on their health and jobs, Diaz said.

“This is an unsustainable situation,” Diaz added.

Another request by SELA United centered on running Spanish-language ads with messages to counter misinformation about negative effects allegedly caused by vaccines rushed to production, and to encourage the community to receive the shots.

Diaz announced the group plans to meet with CVS Pharmacy representatives to discuss plans to include drugstores serving the area and carry the vaccines for residents who qualify under the state tier list, and to expand it for teachers and all essential workers.

Bell Gardens Councilwoman Lisseth Flores said in a statement that community frontline workers, ranging from first respondents to educators, warehouse workers, delivery drivers to Starbuck employees and beyond, have worked all along during the pandemic without promise for a vaccine in sight, and it was time to receive acknowledgment and hope from the White House.

“I’m grateful the Biden administration granted us the opportunity to advocate for our region. I commend [SELA United] for their resilient efforts to ensure our communities receive the representation they deserve,” Flores said.

But the digital divide in the region among the elderly concerns SELA leaders, who pledged to keep fighting to open a regional vaccination center south of Cal State L.A. with federal government support.

“We are willing to roll up our sleeves and have a massive site, wherever it is needed,” Diaz said.

A follow up meeting could take place within the next two weeks, she added.