In the early morning hours, 80-year-old Virginia Salas Grimm braved frigid temperatures and made the half-hour drive from her Calexico home to Brawley in hopes of getting one step closer to the end of the pandemic.

She joined a line of other cars that she estimated to be about a couple miles long, all of them with fellow senior citizens who flocked to an Imperial County church parking lot before the sun came up, trying to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Why this matters

With a history of double-digit unemployment and poor health indicators, Imperial County was among the hardest hit in the state in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Widespread vaccination plays a key role in preventing transmission of the coronavirus.

Grimm was more than two hours early. But 20 minutes after the hospital clinic opened at 7 a.m., she got the bad news.

“I went to Brawley to see if I was going to be one of the lucky ones to get one of the 300 vaccines they had,” she said. “But I wasn’t.”

Chaotic scenes this month at first-come, first-served hospital clinics — lines of older residents, some waiting outside overnight — show the county’s latest challenge as it continues to battle the pandemic: The COVID-19 vaccine is arriving very slowly in Imperial County and demand continues to exceed supply.

In this Jan. 17, 2021, photo, a line forms more than 12 hours in advance outside of the Imperial Valley Mall in El Centro, where a clinic was held to vaccinate residents 65 and older against COVID-19. (Courtesy of Eric Villanueva)

The clinics, put on by Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley and El Centro Regional Medical Center just five days after the state widened eligibility requirements, offered 900 vaccine doses to residents 65 and older.

But several hundred already were in line more than 12 hours in advance of the El Centro hospital’s clinic, forming a queue that wrapped around the sidewalks of the Imperial Valley Mall, where the doses were to be administered. Some brought chairs, canopies and tents in preparation of the long wait.

Shortly after midnight — nearly seven hours before the clinic was to open — capacity had been met. The El Centro Police Department told people to avoid the area if they weren’t already there.

“It’s devastating for our communities, what they’ve had to go through,” Janette Angulo, the county’s public health director and a Brawley native, told inewsource. “It’s only fair that the needed resources make it to our communities and make it to the most vulnerable.”

Janette Angulo, Imperial County public health director, is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Imperial County)

Deemed a hotspot in the early months of the pandemic, Imperial County has often held the highest hospitalization rate in the state for COVID-19. While patient numbers have been declining in recent weeks, the local hospitals were forced to add bed capacity — including a 50-person tent in El Centro Regional’s parking lot and a temporary care site at the local community college — after a surge in cases occurred during the fall months.

Nearly 26,000 people in the county have contracted COVID-19 — about 14% of its total population. While the vast majority have recovered, 528 people have died from the virus as of Thursday. The county’s positivity rate is about 27%.

Still, only about 12,500 vaccine doses have arrived in the county as of Thursday — even as the state widened eligibility to older residents. The vaccine is administered in two doses, and the majority of the shipments the county has received is allocated for the first round.

For comparison, San Diego County has received nearly 485,000 doses. Only 1.5% of its 3.3 million residents are fully vaccinated, and county-run sites just this week began offering the vaccine to those 65 and older.

California has reported administering 61% of the 4.7 million doses that have been shipped to county health departments, health facilities and state agencies. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that the state ultimately will use an age-based vaccine system — a move he said “will allow us to scale up much more quickly to get vaccines to impacted communities much more expeditiously.”

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine while sitting in her vehicle on Jan. 23, 2021. Imperial County held a drive-up clinic outside its administrative offices for in-home support service providers. (Courtesy of Imperial County)

Imperial County leaders made an urgent plea in a letter to Newsom last week asking for more vaccine doses. 

They said the rollout so far “does not seem to meet the needs of Imperial County, nor your expressed original intent of prioritizing communities hardest hit by this pandemic.” 

The county has roughly 26,000 residents who are 65 and older, and about 7% have been inoculated. Vaccine providers don’t have enough doses available yet for seniors, the letter said, leaving the county “with no options other than telling them to wait.” 

“This brings forth extremely conflicted moral and ethical viewpoints of many throughout the communities and makes one wonder how socially equitable this plan is,” the letter said. 

The county has 24 enrolled providers — including the hospitals and the public health department — that are administering the vaccine. About 8,150 doses have been used.

Under state guidelines, employees at risk of exposure who work in certain health care-related settings and residents in long-term care facilities are first being targeted. Of those considered highest risk, the county has vaccinated nearly all of them.

Federal agencies also are vaccinating, and those living in skilled nursing facilities are being vaccinated through on-site clinics run by pharmacies.

But some not yet eligible for the vaccine have been able to get one, officials acknowledged. The Calexico Chronicle reported as many as 35 people who didn’t qualify received a shot at the El Centro Regional hospital. Some are top El Centro officials, including Mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker and City Manager Marcela Piedra.

Imperial County Supervisor Luis Plancarte is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Imperial County)

County Supervisor Luis Plancarte plans to meet with Adolphe Edward, the hospital’s CEO, after he said Edward tried to “reframe and redirect” some of the responsibility of the vaccination clinic onto the county.

“Whether he’s been choosing to (vaccinate) people privately out of order, or what we saw at the mall a few days ago, I ask myself, ‘Why does this happen?’” Plancarte said at a Board of Supervisors meeting last week.

Edward declined to comment on reports of the hospital prematurely vaccinating people, citing possible litigation. He told inewsource the hospital “is committed to working with all agencies” to roll out the vaccine.

Hospital officials at El Centro Regional and Pioneers Memorial say they’re now discussing possible alternatives for future clinics, including an appointment process.

Both hospitals used vaccine shipments they received from the state, meaning the county’s public health department wasn’t involved beyond communications efforts. 

Angulo, the public health director, said because of the high demand for the vaccine, large crowds are expected and every provider should have protocols and plans in place.

“It’s ultimately up to each provider to decide how they’re going to run their clinics,” Angulo said. “They had options and that’s what they decided to do. Of course, there’s lessons learned, and yes, we’re learning from their experience.”

Officials expect nearly 2,000 more doses to arrive in the county next week. 

Grimm said she’s still looking for a place to get safely vaccinated. She plans to avoid any clinic that won’t allow her to wait in her car.

In the meantime, she’s helping friends and neighbors find vaccine information and getting help from her family as the pandemic continues.

“We have to take care of each other here,” Grimm said.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jennifer Bowman serves as inewsource's Assistant Editor. Before that, she was an investigative reporter focusing on government accountability issues in southern San Diego and Imperial counties. She also used to cover education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers...