Lake County community rallies together to overcome vaccine delivery challenges

In rural Lake County, at least a two-hour drive from the Bay Area, people are well acquainted with adversity.  "Lake County is extremely resilient, and independent," said Dr. Gary Pace, Lake County’s public health.  "We’ve had a lot of fires, there’s really a ‘can do’ attitude."

But, the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges for this community atop windy mountain roads and anchored by glistening Clear Lake. Over the years, fires have found this place, and in 2020, so did the coronavirus. "We’re kind of the end of the feeding chain," said Dr. Pace.  "If things back up, or if things get overwhelmed here and the larger counties in the region don’t have the ability to help us, we’re kind of the end of the line."

Dr. Pace, his small staff and an army of volunteers is now focused on getting people in the community vaccinated. But, like many places, supply remains a major issue. "We have to get those doses into rural California," said state senator Mike McGuire, a democrat who represents much of the North Bay and North Coast.  "Which is why it’s critical the state continues to work with counties like Lake. The other piece is, we’re still reeling from years of the state ignoring rural California."

That’s not the only challenge.  Due to how the community is spread out and the large number of residents who don’t have cars, one of the hospitals runs shuttles to get people to vaccine clinics.  The county’s also worked to mitigate other issues like informing the 30% of residents who don’t have internet access or reaching the Latino community that makes up 40% of the population.  "To get to the communities that are most heavily impacted, you have to lower barriers," said Dr. Pace.  "You can’t just push vaccine, the vaccine is the first, but you have to lower barriers."

Under the state’s new vaccine guidelines, 40% of doses are to be sent to the most vulnerable communities.  Lake County is home to six of those vulnerable zip codes.  "We’re really one of the poorest counties in the state," said Dr. Pace.  "We’re one of the lowest education, worst health outcomes, any of the state’s measures, we’re very low down."

There are only two small hospitals in the county, including Adventist Health, Clear Lake, where vaccine is also being distributed, when it’s available. "We are looking into the near-term future where we can actually get beyond the 65+ population into the general population. That will only happen as we increase the number of available vaccines for this county."

Ensuring there’s enough staff to administer those vaccines is also an issue.  "Even when we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, there aren’t enough health professionals here in Lake County to fully meet the needs," said Carol Huchingson, the county administrative officer.

County officials are working with the state including Senator McGuire to lobby for the resources they need to keep fighting the virus in the long term, including reaching the most vulnerable. "So for Lake County, we’re asking them what do you need? How many mobile vaccination sites do you need? How many individuals do you need to staff those mobile vans to go out into the community?"

In the meantime, it’s all hands on deck for Lake County’s healthcare workers and volunteers. Four days a week, they hold a mass clinic inoculating anywhere from 700 to 800 people each day by appointment.  Every dose the county gets, goes into the arm of a grateful resident. "Especially for up in this area, it’s a low-income area, and they’re doing really good by the people," said Alex Reid, who had just received his second dose of the Moderna vaccine.

Health leaders in Lake County say they’re grateful for the collaboration. But, if the help doesn’t come from the state, they’re confident their small community will step up together to meet the need. "Here in Lake County, we may be small, but I would characterize us as mighty," said Huchingson.