Comite Civico del Valle employee William Gerhart speaks to a Calipatria resident in the 200 block of West Barbara Street about the nonprofits' Get Out the Vaccine campaign on Tuesday, Aug. 17. | CAMILO GARCIA JR. PHOTO
CALIPATRIA — It wasn’t too long ago that Valley resident Jose Luis Arellano would outright dismiss anyone attempting to talk to him about the dangers of COVID-19 or the benefits of vaccinations.
But after he contracted the coronavirus and witnessed others around him get sick and in some cases die, his opinions changed radically.
“When all this started, I didn’t believe in any of it. I was one of them naysayers,” Arellano said. “But it’s real.”
Nowadays, the retired California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation employee has been spending his time going door-to-door in select Valley cities registering willing non-vaccinated residents for a vaccine appointment.
Arellano is part of a crew of about 20 individuals hired on a part-time basis by the Brawley-based nonprofit Comite Civico del Valle to undertake a so-called “Get Out the Vaccine” effort.
Through a contract with the University of California, Los Angeles’ Clinical and Translational Science Institute, the local Get Out the Vaccine effort has been focused since early July on registering unvaccinated residents for appointments, as well as providing information about available COVID-related services and resources for those who still may be hesitant to get vaccinated.
Between July 3 and Aug. 3, the initiative has reached a total of 6,700 households in El Centro, Westmorland, Calipatria, and Seeley, and helped register 150 individuals for vaccination appointments, either through door-knocking or phone and text banking.
The effort comes at a time when about 86.1 percent of the county’s population has been vaccinated with at least one dose, according to information released by the county Public Health Department on Aug. 6.
The partial vaccination rate makes the county one of the state’s most vaccinated counties and is considerably greater than the statewide average of 74 percent.
The local effort has even changed Arellano’s opinion of nonprofits, too. He previously had universally suspected them of being organizations whose self-serving administrators siphoned off a majority of the revenue.
“If we can bring hope to the Valley and be a part of that solution, and see that people are going to the next level of normalcy, then we’re doing the right thing,” he said on Tuesday, Aug. 17 as he and several team members fanned out across Calipatria in an attempt to register more residents for appointments.
Prior to the start of the day’s canvassing in Calipatria and Westmorland, the team assembled at one of Comite Civico’s offices to go over the day’s plan. They were reminded to wear their masks at all times, practice social distancing when speaking to residents and, in instances where no one answers a door right away, knock a second time before departing.
Because some encounters have proved challenging, Comite Civico outreach specialist Isamay Pasillas also reminded team members of what to do in cases where residents make it clear that they are not welcome.
“Remember, if you do come into a situation where somebody starts to get really hostile and they don’t appreciate the interaction, just say, ‘Thank you for your time. Sorry for the inconvenience. Have a good day,’” Pasillas told those assembled. “I know that some of you have been through very difficult situations. So just be positive.”
The Get Out the Vaccine effort is about halfway through its three-month contract with UCLA, though it may be extended until December, said Victor Beas, Comite Civico marketing, outreach, and engagement specialist.
It has canvassed the four select cities on two separate occasions and just started on a third pass. During that time, team members have encountered some residents who have insisted on expressing their political or personal views in “very threatening ways” that have left some team members feeling like “punching bags,” said Luis Olmedo, Comite Civico executive director.
“All we ask is if people don’t need the help, just politely decline it,” Olmedo said in an email. “We respect people’s views, our purpose is simply to make sure those who want a vaccine have access to vaccines.”
In the time that Calexico resident William Gerhart has been helping with the Get Out the Vaccine effort, he had encountered just one resident who got confrontational with him. But that strained interaction was due mostly to the resident’s complaint that their home had been approached at least four times by canvassers even after being told that the household was not interested in the assistance.
Gerhart, who said he considers himself a “people person,” was able to quickly deescalate the situation by apologizing for the inconvenience and promising to alert his supervisor of the issue.
As part of their efforts, canvassers are each provided a tablet that UCLA has equipped with a database that is largely based on local voter registration lists. The Get Out the Vaccine team members will then update the database with the results of their interactions with residents, who are not listed by name.
When a resident agrees to have a team member assist with making a vaccine appointment, that outcome is reflected in the database. Other references are made for those residences where no one has answered the door, where residences are not accessible, or where a resident refused assistance.
What Gerhart and the rest of the team have mostly encountered are residents who have already been vaccinated.
“I’d probably say seven out of 10 people are vaccinated,” Gerhart said during a break from door-knocking in Calipatria on Aug. 17. “The others are hesitant or have medical concerns or don’t want anything to do with it.”
Though Gerhart said he initially became part of the effort mainly to be employed, his appreciation of the initiative has grown, considering it is providing a valuable public service amid a deadly pandemic whose impact in the community remains ongoing.
“The information (about vaccinations) is available pretty easily, but a lot of these people don’t have the means or ways of attaining it,” he said.
Comite Civico’s participation in the Get Out the Vaccine campaign is unique in the Valley, though other community-based organizations have been promoting vaccinations and providing personal protective equipment to vulnerable members of the community.
The effort reflects the state’s transition away from mass vaccination sites and toward more targeted outreach campaigns, according to an announcement by UCLA’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute.
Some 2,000 individuals from targeted communities were expected to be employed in the initiative, which was being supported by an additional $33 million in funding Gov. Gavin Newsom allocated in May to support community-based organizations’ efforts in hard-hit areas, UCLA reported.
Locally, the Get Out the Vaccine team members were each being asked to knock on about 100 doors during their canvassing efforts on Tuesday, Aug. 17, in the hopes that at least one person would ask for help making an appointment. Residents are also being advised that most local clinics are accepting walk-ins, as well.
When it came time for team member Arellano to make his pitch to Beth Snow, who lives in the 200 block of West Barbara Street, Snow advised him that she and her children are unable to get vaccinated because of their allergies.
Though she and her household are taking all the appropriate precautions, Snow also shared that since the onset of the pandemic she has placed her faith in Jesus Christ and that whatever may transpire, she would accept it as God’s will.
“It’s a weird way to look at it,” Snow said. “But I trust in a higher power.”
COVID-19 vaccines are available for individuals 12 years and older and easily accessible at many provider sites throughout Imperial County, including health care offices, hospitals, community clinics, pharmacies, as well as the Imperial County Public Health Department.