California’s new approach to prioritizing COVID-19 vaccine doses among its most vulnerable communities is set to benefit Imperial County, but it’s not known yet how much of a boost will come to the region.

The state announced last week that 40% of its vaccine supply will go to more than 400 ZIP codes with low scores on the Healthy Places Index, a tool that ranks communities based on economic and health factors. Thirteen Imperial County ZIP codes qualify under the new approach.

Why this matters

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

Vaccine allocation for those eligible areas will double under the changes, the state said. Officials on Wednesday were nearing their goal of administering 2 million doses in those communities. The highest-ranked neighborhoods reported administering more than 3.3 million. 

Dr. Stephen Munday, the county’s health officer, said few details are available about the new state initiative and that local officials are hoping to learn more about the change in the coming days.

“We do know that they’re going to increase the equity proportion of the vaccine. We just don’t know exactly how they’re going to roll it out and redistribute it amongst different local health jurisdictions,” Munday said at a news conference last week.

Already grappling with high poverty and poor health factors, the county quickly became one of the hardest-hit regions during the pandemic. About 15% of its 181,000 residents have contracted COVID-19, compared to about 9% statewide.

Staff from the Imperial County Public Health Department and partnering agencies prepare to administer COVID-19 vaccine doses during a March 5, 2021 drive-through clinic for residents 65 and older. (Courtesy of Imperial County)

Its two hospitals were so overwhelmed during the first wave of COVID-19 that the county was forced to divert hundreds of patients elsewhere. Officials also twice opened a temporary emergency facility at the local community college to alleviate the caseload.

Local leaders have twice pleaded their case to Gov. Gavin Newsom that they had received fewer doses than similarly sized counties with lower poverty rates, higher household incomes, and fewer COVID-19 cases and deaths.

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The county has received about 35,000 doses as of Tuesday. It’s set to receive about 8,500 more this week — the biggest allocation the county has received thus far. 

“This is going to put us over the top, but it has to be continual,” said Tony Rouhotas Jr., the county’s top administrator. “It’s not something we want to stop. We need more, and we’ll continue to ask for more until we are back on track and have normalcy back.”

The state’s Healthy Places Index looks at income, healthcare access, transportation, the environment and other factors to rank communities. Only about 18% of the administered doses statewide have gone to people living in the bottom quartile despite those areas comprising roughly 40% of cases and deaths.

Staff from the Imperial County Public Health Department and partnering agencies prepare to administer COVID-19 vaccine doses during a March 5, 2021 drive-through clinic for residents 65 and older. (Courtesy of Imperial County)

Some counties that don’t rank in the bottom quartile have raised concerns that they’ll see a stagnant number of doses amid ongoing shortages and while trying to coordinate second-round appointments for residents who have received their first shots.

Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s health and human services secretary, said he expects all communities to receive at least the same amount of doses they’re receiving now.

San Diego County, where more than 1.1 million doses have been administered, has a dozen ZIP codes that qualify for more of the vaccine under the state rankings. Among those expected to benefit from the program are some San Diego neighborhoods, including San Ysidro, City Heights and Logan Heights. Oceanside and National City, and the rural towns of Campo and Jacumba also will receive extra doses.

Left out of the rankings are two Chula Vista ZIP codes along Interstate 805 that have some of the highest COVID-19 case numbers in the county.

Under the state’s new initiative, counties will be required to demonstrate that at least 40% of their vaccine supply goes to “the lowest income residents and most highly impacted communities,” according to Newsom’s office. 

The state is also reserving more time slots for residents in the eligible communities in My Turn, its appointment registration system.

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...