Sara and Juan Saravia had three pandemic strikes against them.
They are elderly, Latino and live with a daughter who works in a hospital where some of the sickest patients in the region are being cared for.
But on Saturday, that last liability became an advantage. Because of their daughter’s work as a housekeeper at Keck Hospital of USC, 81-year-old Sara and 83-year-old Juan were able to get their COVID vaccines.
“Now I don’t have to worry as much,” said Sara, who proudly wore a red sticker that read, “I got my shot!”
The couple were among about 300 people vaccinated Saturday at USC’s health sciences campus. The inclusion of elderly relatives of hospital housekeepers, cafeteria and warehouse workers came amid a chaotic push across the county and state to quickly get the vaccine to at-risk groups to stem the relentless rise of COVID infections.
It was also part of a stab at equity. Although the overall vaccination rate among Keck staff is 65%, only about 40% of the facility’s housekeepers had received one or both of their vaccination shots as of Thursday. That in itself was a significant improvement from two weeks ago, when just a quarter of the hospital’s housekeepers had received shots.
The vaccination rate is similarly low among other divisions of the hospital staff that are made up predominantly of Latino and Black employees, according to Felipe Osorno, executive administrator of continuum of care operations and value improvement at Keck Medicine of USC.
“This is not dissimilar to what we’re seeing throughout the country — that Latinx and people-of-color communities are getting vaccinated at much lower rates,” Osorno said.
In Los Angeles County, the region’s Latino and Black communities have borne the brunt of illness and death brought on by the novel coronavirus. The COVID-19 mortality rate among Latino residents soared from 3½ daily deaths for every 100,000 people in early November to 28 deaths a day now. Among Black residents, the death rate jumped from 1 death a day to more than 15 for every 100,000 people.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Osorno said, “when the folks who are getting COVID the most, dying the most, are also the ones not accessing the vaccine.”
To try to boost vaccination rates, the hospital has circulated fliers with QR codes to make it easier for workers to access a link to register for vaccines, translated vaccination promotional materials into Spanish and sought out staff for in-person conversations.
Over the past week, Osorno has met with groups of housekeepers and custodians to answer their questions in Spanish and English. Employees asked Osorno about the vaccine’s safety and raised concerns about the second dose potentially causing them to get sick and miss work. Osorno assured them they would not be penalized if that happened.
“What we realized is, there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said, “and when you have a chance to have small group conversations with folks and answer the questions in their language, a lot of them were like, ‘OK, I think I can do this.'”
On Saturday morning, Maria Saravia looped her arms through her parents’ as she walked them to USC’s Norris Healthcare Center. She had come to the same place to be vaccinated in December — a first important step toward protecting her parents and two daughters, with whom she shares a three-bedroom home.
Maria and her sister, who also works as a housekeeper at the hospital, had struggled to get their parents vaccination appointments. They made trips to mass-vaccination operations at Disneyland and Dodger Stadium, but were turned away because at the time shots were being provided only to front-line caregivers. Walgreens also shot them down. When Los Angeles County recently opened vaccinations to people 65 and older, they tried to get an appointment online but came up empty.
The COVID-19 vaccine supply is extremely limited in the county, and only a small number of appointments are available for frontline healthcare workers and residents 65 or older. Many frustrated seniors have been vying for the few available slots.
“When the opportunity opened up here, I was like, ‘I’m going to take it,'” Maria said.
Around 10:30 a.m., her mother, Sara, sat down at one of several stations manned by nurses and pulled her left arm out from beneath of a bundle of sweaters. She had painted her fingernails pink to mark the occasion.
Over the last year, her family had kept a close eye on her. Anytime she got near the front door, she said, her granddaughters would ask, “Dónde vas, Grandma?” “Where are you going?” If she needed something, they told her, they would go get it.
Sara wasn’t nervous, barely flinching as the needle went into her arm. Nearby, Maria kept a close watch on her parents.
“You brought the whole family, congrats,” registered nurse Claude D’Netto told Maria. “It’s a big deal!”
“I’m blessed,” she said.
Later that morning, Marco Antonio Salas brought his 68-year-old mom, Nidia. Salas, who has worked as a housekeeper at the hospital for about a year, was vaccinated earlier this month.
He said his mom had been reluctant at first to get vaccinated, until he reassured her that he hadn’t suffered any side effects. When he told her Monday that Keck was offering the vaccine to family members, “she didn’t hesitate,” he said.
“Oh my goodness, I didn’t feel anything,” Nidia told the registered nurse after getting vaccinated.
“Do you want another one?” the nurse joked.
Nidia was relieved to have gotten it. She had watched a nephew struggle for days before managing to make his mom an appointment at Hansen Dam Recreation Center, one of the vaccination sites run by the county.
“I think she’s going to have to battle again to get that second dose,” Nidia said.
Nelly Duran, 68, had heard all kinds of tales about the vaccine — that it turned you zombie-like afterward; that it could give you a heart attack. The rumors scared her so much that for a while she was determined not to get vaccinated.
But when her sister, a hospital housekeeper, offered her the chance to come on Saturday, she knew she needed to do it. Her daughter, who’d become very sick with COVID in December, told her there were no appointments available elsewhere.
“When I told her I was getting it, she was so happy,” said Duran of her daughter.
A few of Duran’s friends have told her they’re not getting vaccinated. Her mother-in-law didn’t even want to discuss the possibility.
“Everyone who told me they’re not going to get it, I’m going to tell them I got it,” she said. “And that I didn’t feel anything.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.