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(SACRAMENTO) — U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra on Thursday visited two locations in Sacramento where UC Davis Health and its community partners provide COVID-19 vaccines to the medically underserved.
Becerra wanted to learn first-hand how the partnerships have succeeded in breaking down barriers to health care access. He also solicited ideas on how to vaccinate people across the country who are hesitant about getting the shot.
The locations – La Familia Counseling Center in South Sacramento and St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Park – are among a string of partnerships where UC Davis has been instrumental in providing tens of thousands of doses to people from underserved communities.
The partnerships with community centers, schools, churches and other groups, Becerra learned, are successful because the non-profit organizations are closely in tune with the needs of local residents, who are often ethnic and racial minorities.
“Having UC Davis health partner with La Familia and other local neighborhood organizations that know the community, have the trust of the community, is essential,” Becerra said. “That makes the connection between the community and the health services seamless, and that’s what you need.”
La Familia Executive Director Rachel Rios, whose organization has also been a COVID-19 testing site for a year, told Becerra that providing health services during the fast-moving pandemic was a struggle at first, as they learned how to best reach a multicultural community.
“There isn’t a one-size fits all approach, you have to do intentional outreach,” she said. “You need to work with different communities in different ways.”
“We are finding out that we have to be much more strategic and intentional in identifying rapidly where these inequities are,” he said. He advocated for taking COVID-19 vaccinations to places such as flea markets to reach certain populations.
Aguilar-Gaxiola is part of a UC Davis effort funded by a federal grant to test farmworkers in Yolo and Stanislaus counties for the virus, and, lately, has begun to offer vaccines. Becerra, who became secretary less than two months ago, praised the effort.
Becerra asked what the federal government can do to vaccinate communities that have been hardest hit by COVID-19.
UC Davis Associate Dean for Public Health Sciences Bradley Pollock emphasized the need for data collection to help bring the pandemic to an end. The state, he told Becerra, is still figuring out a way to provide COVID-19 positivity rates by zip code, which can help determine where to distribute the vaccine.
“We need to be focusing on hotspots for the underserved,” added UC Davis Health CEO David Lubarsky.
Becerra toured the vaccination room at La Familia where he asked one man why he decided to get the shot months after it first became available.
“I was a little scared due to lack of information,” replied Benito Guzman, an auto mechanic. Guzman said he eventually made up his mind and got vaccinated because his family, friends and neighbors didn’t have severe reactions after their shots. “It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Guzman said.
Becerra then quipped, “I need to take you with me to all the interviews on the TV networks so they can see that you got your vaccine.”
After his tour of La Familia, Becerra visited St. Paul Missionary Missionary Baptist Church, a well-known community pillar that has met the spiritual needs of Black and other congregants for more than 70 years.
He said about 60 percent of those eligible for the vaccine nationally have gotten it, and that President Joe Biden wants to increase the rate to 70 percent.
It’s critical to reach people who don’t have easy access to the vaccine, as well as those who are still hesitant, Becerra said.
“The president made very clear that he wants to make sure everyone can get vaccinated, and one of the things he has said – and it’s great to see the leader of the country saying – I want to go to those parts of the country that we always forget, the corners of the country where we often leave folks behind.”
Becerra added, “I take that very seriously. Having grown up not far from here in Sacramento, I know this area and I know how this sometimes is considered one of those cracks in the community that often gets left behind, and so I think it’s important that we walk that talk.”
Leaders at the round table discussion in the church’s fellowship hall expressed their desire to see more mobile health clinics, school-based clinics, and telemedicine to provide the expected demand for mental health services after the pandemic ends.
St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Kenneth Reece, who was vaccinated at the weekly clinic UC Davis runs at his church, acknowledged there are a number of ways to keep the community safer, including educating people to be advocates for their own health.
“I also know that there has to be a larger conversation,” he added, “I mean, it has to be not just from educating our own community, but we need a larger conversation with government.”
Becerra, the former California Attorney General, has spent two days in Sacramento.
On Wednesday he toured the UC Davis Health Department of Psychiatry’s Early Psychosis Programs. The tour came after an announcement Tuesday that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is distributing $3 billion in American Rescue Plan funding for its mental health and substance use block grant programs.
Read more about the efforts of UC Davis and UC Davis Health to care for the underserved throughout the COVID-19 crisis.