The line of people waiting at the Imperial Valley Mall to get one of 600 doses of COVID vaccine at El Centro Regional Medical Center's mass vaccination clinic for those 65 and older grew to just about 600 by 9:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17, estimated El Centro Mayor Pro Tem Tomas Oliva. He council member was upset over the hospital's execution of the clinic. | PHOTO COURTESY OF TOMAS OLIVA
EL CENTRO — After hundreds of senior citizens braved plummeting temperatures, and what could be no better described than organized chaos outside the Imperial Valley Mall in the run-up to Monday morning’s first mass COVID vaccination event in El Centro, harsh words from both county and city officials were expected in the ensuing debrief.
Same for the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, members of which had some choice words for both local hospitals over what was perceived as the lack of organization regarding the clinics.
Pioneers Memorial Health District also held its own clinic Monday, Jan. 18, where 300 doses of vaccine were administered at the Gateway Church in Brawley, several hundred yards east of the hospital on Legion Road. And while Pioneers’ vaccination clinic was nowhere near as chaotic as El Centro’s on Sunday night, it was by no means perfect.
The county board had no public presentations or comments to make during its regular meeting on Tuesday morning, as it only dealt with executive session items, none of which were related to the clinics or vaccine distribution.
One criticism, which came by way of District 1 Supervisor Jesus Escobar, was that the Imperial County Public Health Department had offered up its expertise in mass vaccination events to both hospitals, which as vaccine providers with the state Department of Public Health, had ultimate say over how they ran their clinics.
Still, Escobar said county Public Health Director Janette Angulo, who has overseen annual countywide flu clinics and an H1N1 vaccination clinic in 2009, offered to share best practices and lessons learned, but there no takers.
The county and the city were to address vaccination issues, and likely debrief on the local clinics, during two special meetings on Wednesday, Jan. 20, past this newspaper’s deadline.
The county board was to meet at 3 p.m., while the El Centro City Council was to meet jointly with the El Centro Regional Medical Center Board of Trustees at 6 p.m., both meetings to be streamed online.
To recap, though, several hundred people, many of them senior citizens, and some their children or younger relatives serving as stand-ins, waited in lines that increased in length by the hour Sunday in anticipation of the first COVID vaccine clinic for the more than 26,000 people age 65 and older who have now been thrust to the top of the priority list by the state.
Although county Public Health Department officials had said 2,000 more doses of the vaccine specifically earmarked for Imperial County’s senior population were due to be delivered any time this week, 900 doses were allocated from previously received second doses in order of jumpstart the senior clinics in El Centro and Brawley, Angulo said in an interview on Monday.
As of 9:30 p.m. Sunday, the crowds outside the Imperial Valley Mall had grown to what El Centro Mayor Pro Tem Tomas Oliva estimated to be in upward of 600 people, with more still arriving, he told the Calexico Chronicle.
Echoing the sentiment widely shared over social media since many seniors, or their stand-ins, started arriving on site before noon that day, Oliva said he was angered over the organization and execution of El Centro Regional’s clinic.
“It’s ridiculous out here,” Oliva said. “There’s no excuse for this.”
As temperatures continued to drop late Sunday night, El Centro firefighters were onsite handing out hot coffee and others, including service organizations and other elected officials, arrived with food donations.
Making the rounds at the mall with fellow council member Martha Cardenas-Singh, Oliva said he had not seen any officials from El Centro Regional Medical Center around to “figure this mess out.” He said he tried to get the attention of a hospital staff member inside the food court area, where the clinic will take place, but no other high-level officials were present.
That’s when the first-term council member said he planned to bring up what transpired Sunday at Tuesday’s council meeting.
But hospital officials also arrived to pass out the tickets for entry into the clinic just after midnight, when the previous plan had been to hand out at 5 a.m. As a result, many of those in the line did not have to stay all night after all, Edward indicated in an email sent Monday.
When the clinic got underway at 7, all 600 doses were administered and the clinic was over within three and half hours, Edward stated.
Holtville resident Manuel Cortez contacted the Calexico Chronicle around 9 a.m. Monday to share photos of his grandparents, who are from Westmorland. They happened to be the first and second in line to receive their vaccinations, as the couple, whose names Cortez did not provide, proudly display their “winning” tickets.
As for Sunday night, Oliva said city officials, including himself, the fire chief, the city manager, and others, had offered a number of suggestions to ECRMC administration regarding how to conduct the mass vaccination clinic, but “all answers were no,” he said.
Oliva said on Sunday night that the suggestions were made to have hospital staff register people who showed up, so when or if the numbers reached 600, everybody could be told to go home, which did end up happening to some degree after all.
Meanwhile in Brawley, those trying to save their spot in line Sunday night parked their cars in a line outside the entrance to the Gateway Church parking lot on the corner of Highway 86 and Legion Road, and simply left.
Earlier in the day Sunday, Pioneers spokesperson Karina Lopez said those parked outside could be let into the parking lot as early as 2 a.m. Monday, but registration and tickets wouldn’t be distributed until 5 a.m.
Jose Luis Olmedo, a Brawley resident, executive director of Comite Civico Del Valle, and a member of county and state vaccine advisory committees, had been monitoring the situation in Brawley most of Sunday.
“Since Saturday, concerns among senior advocates started pouring in. I made these known to Imperial County (Public) Health and also reached out to Pioneers Memorial Healthcare District. I, along with other advocates, raised concerns, and we are pleased how PMHD promptly responded by working on the logistics and informing everyone in their vehicle making line,” Olmedo said on Sunday night. “Glad to see empty vehicles and both city of Brawley and PMHD accommodating vehicles to take the place of people.”
“What’s most important is keeping the vulnerable population, 65-plus, safe with humane conditions,” Olmedo added.
Public reaction to Sunday’s events were harsh, but that wasn’t unexpected. When details of the two clinics were released to the public by the hospitals late Friday afternoon, Jan. 15, via social media many were skeptical and critical, both from personal perspectives and as senior advocates.
“Nine hundred vaccines on a first-come, first-served basis appears to be a survival-of-the-fittest approach. Most senior citizens have primary-care physicians. Were they included in the decision-making process? What about reasonable accommodation for the elderly, frail, and disabled? We can and must do better,” said Brawley resident John Hernandez on Friday night. Hernandez, a former state senior citizens’ representative, now sits on the Imperial County Area Agency on Aging board.
El Centro resident Joy Ceasar, a local education administrator with two retired educator parents over 65, found the set-up troubling as soon as it was made public Friday. She posted to social media later that night.
“Does anyone else have an issue with … setting up COVID-19 vaccines for the most fragile age group at a first-come, first-served event? 600 people over 65 in a large group … during a stay-at home order? And the one in El Centro requires you have to stand in line. Does anyone else think this is a horrible, dangerous idea?” Ceasar wrote.
Social media, all around, from Friday night through late Sunday, has been alight with commentary over the state of the two clinics, with the reactions overwhelmingly negative. Most of the criticism has been cast toward the idea that so many of what are considered the most vulnerable among us are the ones being forced into cattle-like conditions.
“It is sad that in ‘the greatest country in the world’ our nation’s most vulnerable citizens have to wait in Black Friday-style lines to receive a vaccine that can spare their lives. Bureaucratic red tape and politics have had dire negative implications in the distribution process,” Noemi Esquer posted to the Calexico Chronicle’s Facebook page.
“This is so wrong! How about the elderly that can’t stand in line for any amount of time. Elderly who can’t spend the night because they are ‘the elderly.’ It’s ridiculous and poorly managed,” wrote Lupe Hamilton.
Earlier in the day Jan. 17, when the mercury had topped 85 degrees, many began to fear that the heat would overcome some of the seniors arriving at the mall.
“How sad. So badly managed. Why not have them set an (appointment) instead of having them do this with 80-plus degrees. Angry,” posted Torres GL to the Chronicle’s page.
Calexico Chronicle staff arrived at the mall just after 1 p.m. Sunday to photograph the early arrivals and talk to some of those waiting in line. One person was interviewed before a journalist was asked to leave by a member of El Centro Regional’s staff, citing federal privacy regulations.
Before the journalist was asked to leave, Imperial resident Juve Obeso stepped aside to chat.
“I feel that people really wanted this vaccine already, so yeah, they’re going to do whatever it takes in order to get the vaccine, so they’re willing to wait under these conditions,” Obeso said, referring to the unseasonably warm weather that reached around 85 degrees.
Obeso, who had arrived only a half hour before being interviewed, was still upbeat about what was going on.
“It feels great that the vaccine is finally coming to our people,” said Obeso, who had arrived to stand in line for his senior citizen father-in-law. “We’re trying to help him out and make the line for him in order to get the vaccine in the morning.”
Photojournalist Camilo Garcia Jr. contributed information to this story.