Oakland Coliseum mass vaccination site will close in May

Getting COVID-19 vaccine shots in arms will now mostly fall to community-based groups.

Vaccinations at Oakland Coliseum March 7 2021. Credit: Tracey Taylor

The parking lot in front of Family Laundry in Fruitvale was already corralled off Wednesday morning with orange cones and a yellow plastic chain. A board by the front entrance advertised Friday’s vaccine clinic. 

“My team has been amazing at getting the word out,” said Laura Guevara, who owns Family Laundry’s two locations with her husband, David. 

From 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday at 2609 Foothill Boulevard, the laundromat is hosting a clinic where people who already had their first shots of Pfizer will get their second doses. Curative, the healthcare company that’s handling the details, is also bringing 100 Pfizer doses for first-time patients. When they did that at Family Laundry’s first vaccination event on April 9, they gave out 99 of those 100 shots, with 30 of them going into people who just walked up. 

“People don’t bother registering,” Guevara said.

Family Laundry is an example of the next phase of vaccine delivery in Alameda County and California. Mass vaccination sites have done much of the heavy lifting, but going forward health experts say the state will rely even more on the people and organizations who already have established connections in the community to operate smaller pop-up sites. Major vaccine hubs have seen steep drop off in the numbers of people showing up for doses since the surge last month when anyone age 16 or older qualified. 

Traffic at the Coliseum’s drive-up site dropped during the last two weeks of April from about 4,000 first-dose appointments to about 400 a day, according to Alameda County’s health department. Now it and the Moscone Center in San Francisco are slated to close by the end of the month because demand is no longer meeting supply.

It’s further evidence of where Oakland, Alameda County, and much of the U.S. are in the vaccine effort: those who badly wanted their shots have got them and there’s more vaccine to go around than ever before. 

Even with an estimated 85,000 children in Alameda County aged 12 to 15 soon eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, pending a decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, demand isn’t expected to rise again. Of the county’s ability to meet the latest surge, Aneeka Chaudhry, assistant agency director at Alameda County Health Care Services Agency, says not all those children will get vaccinated initially, but, “We do have enough doses.”

Mass vax sites have served their purpose

California is shifting away from mass vaccination sites. California’s Office of Emergency Services is scheduled to end its involvement at the Coliseum on Sunday, May 9, while the county will take over appointments for second doses of Pfizer before closing May 23. 

From there, the county and state are putting more emphasis on targeted outreach in communities that have faced the worst of COVID-19. That’s been the focus of sites run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and California’s Office of Emergency Services in East and West Oakland, sponsored by community groups, from schools to houses of worship.

Waiting in a virtual or physical line to get a vaccine was part of the rollout norm just a few weeks ago. That’s become a pandemic memory.

Shoshana Gould, partnerships manager for Curative in the Bay Area, says their mass vaccination site in Albany near Golden Gate Fields has a 2,000 people a day capacity. It often served this many after it opened in February. Now, days will pass when almost half of the hundreds of available appointments will go unused.

“The mass vaccination site served its purpose early on,” Gould said. “It’s crazy to see how quickly things have changed.”

Shifting the vaccine effort

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Alameda County Vaccine Community Advisory Group, Kimi Watkins-Tartt, director of the public health department, said the county plans to increase community-based strategies with pop ups and community sites that deliver between 500 and 2,000 doses a day. 

Some  of these clinics are shifting their hours to stay open later on weekdays and weekends. For example, Allen Temple Baptist Church’s latest clinic at 8501 International Boulevard goes from 3 to 7 p.m. this Thursday and Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday.

“As people return to work, it’s going to be more important to be available when people can get to a site,” Watkins-Tartt said.

The goal of the shift is to reach people who have not yet been vaccinated and make the process as easy as possible for them. That will also rely heavily on the use of Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine, which doesn’t require a follow-up appointment like Pfizer or Moderna. 

Dr. Kim Rhoads, associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF’s School School of Medicine and head of Umoja Health, says the vaccine effort is going to be more portable and part of the community, including being part of an upcoming block party in West Oakland, “like a party attraction.” 

Vaccine deliverers have also been invited to a motorcycle club event at Liberation Park in deep East Oakland and a peace walk later in the month, kind of hanging out in the background to see if anyone wants some information or just maybe to get their shot. 

Overall, members of the advisory group say they need to employ more tactics, such as waving people into a vaccine site like it’s a charity car wash, or go back to the door-to-door tactics used during the U.S. Census. Rhoads even encourages people to host small summertime backyard gatherings “like an old Tupperware party.” 

“It’s summertime. We’ll open a vial and you’ll invite 10 people,” she said. “We’ll vaccinate them all, we’ll hang out and do the observation period with everybody together, and then after that it’s really for everyone to be socially distanced together outdoors.”

There’s one more shift in vaccine policy that’s come down from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health: if there’s someone with an outstretched arm, give them the shot.  

“We are liberalizing the restrictions against wasting. Right now, we have enough vaccine that wasting a dose is not as bad as missing a vaccine,” said Dr. Kathleen Clanon, medical director of Alameda County Health Care Services Agency. “We would rather you puncture a vial and give one dose and waste the rest than waste the opportunity of someone who wants to be vaccinated.”

President Joe Biden has set new vaccine goals of having 70% of adults in the United States with at least one dose of a vaccine and 160 million Americans fully vaccinated by the Fourth of July. The latter would include people inoculated with the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. 

“It’s another huge goal, and a serious step toward a return to normal,” Biden tweeted Tuesday. “Get vaccinated, keep following CDC guidance. We can do this.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced new initiatives and funding to support community-based organizations and the roles they’ve been playing in vaccinating the state’s hard-to-reach communities. That includes an additional $33 million in funding to those community-based organizations.

While close to 72% of Alameda County residents over the age of 16 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, those in the effort know that getting every additional percentage point is going to be a tedious, steady struggle.

Local health leaders say a main point in that message is not shaming people who have yet to be vaccinated, but giving them enough information to confidently make the decision on their own. 

That could be telling people about the vaccine during a sermon or handing out a flyer in the right language at a food delivery site. 

Guevara, the laundromat owner, has been using text messaging and WhatsApp to tell people about the clinic at Family Laundry. “I’d rather get a text from Laura than FEMA,” said Curative’s Gould. 

But keeping up messaging about vaccines and COVID are even more responsibilities on top of staying in business and keeping employees safe during an ongoing pandemic. 

“That’s hard,” Guevara said. “We’re a small business and it’s a real challenge getting the communication out.”

Instead, she’d like to see over-investment in her community, especially in parts of the 94601 ZIP code, which has seen some of the worst COVID numbers in Oakland. That includes better support of mobile and pop-up sites from the city and the county health department. 

“I have not seen one person from the county out here speaking with people,” Guevara said. “That’s not my job, but I’m doing it.”