As Delta variant spreads, vaccine outreach targets Bay Area communities of color

Doctors in the Bay Area are cautioning unvaccinated people about the risks of attending large, indoor gatherings on the Fourth of July, as the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 spreads.

The Delta variant accounts for more than 36 percent of COVID-19 cases in California, which are doubling every two weeks, according to the California Department of Public Health.

"I think people who are gathering and unvaccinated do really risk getting infected with the Delta variant or with another variant of the coronavirus, and I would really encourage people to think twice about that," Dr. Alicia Fernandez, professor of medicine at UCSF said, adding that unvaccinated people should wear masks if gathering indoors, and above all, get vaccinated immediately. 

Fernandez noted that the Bay Area's high vaccination rate, above 70 percent, suggests that a surge in cases and hospitalizations is unlikely. 

But Fernandez is concerned about the Delta variant severely compromising communities where vaccination rates are low, such as Oakland's Fruitvale district, where she says roughly 60 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.

"We are concerned people do need to be vaccinated in order to protect themselves," Fernandez said.

College students trained by UCSF doctors and supervised by The Unity Council are serving as community vaccination ambassadors, canvassing streets in Fruitvale to encourage their unvaccinated peers to get vaccinated at preschools, community centers, and churches that are operating as local vaccine sites.

The ambassadors speak multiple languages, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Tagalog, and Arabic.

In San Francisco and Oakland, new pop-up vaccination sites are running in churches, set up by health tech company Color in partnership with the state to reach under-vaccinated communities of color.

Pastor Gerald Agee of Friendship Christian Center in West Oakland is leading outreach statewide, directing the African American Community Empowerment Council, to bring people to the church vaccination sites. He says he's making progress, but still meeting vaccine resistance.

"Number one, they will come to the sites, and number two, it will take some time, and it will take some effort," Agee said.

Agee and Dr. Fernandez both agree that targeted peer-to-peer outreach is the best strategy to help vaccine-resistant individuals overcome their concerns.

"We just have to be with them, we have to go where they go, we have to talk to them and have people that's like them talking with them," Agee said.

Nidhi Pandya, a tourist from New York City enjoying her first trip to San Francisco on Saturday said she is happy to site see and travel in groups, but prefers to wear a mask indoors rather than get the vaccine.

"To be very honest, we have crazy trust in our immunities," Pandya said. "It's been a year, we've been fine so far."

Fernandez says vaccine hesitancy predominates in people under the age of 40, who, like Pandya, believe their immune systems are strong enough to protect them against COVID-19.

"I think that's a misjudgment," Fernandez said. "I understand that people have wanted to wait and see, but we've all waited, we've seen, now it's time to get vaccinated."