The city of Watsonville hired Katie Nuñez in March 2020 to supervise the Watsonville Senior Center. Her tasks then were to bring the community hub into the 21st century and create a slew of programs for the area’s older adults.
But just two weeks after taking over the program, the novel coronavirus started to spread throughout Santa Cruz County, and everything changed. Nuñez has instead had to fill in the gaps that have arisen in the city’s response to the pandemic—whether that be through grocery distributions or online services.
More recently, and perhaps most importantly, she and Yajaira Rea—the only other city employee at the Senior Center—have served as point guard for the city’s vaccination efforts. They have been the link between Santa Cruz County, the city, various nonprofits, small health care providers and thousands of residents struggling to find a vaccine appointment for various reasons.
In all, Nuñez and city staff since Feb. 6 have helped more than 1,700 residents get their shot at the mass vaccination center in downtown Watsonville—a location operated by OptumServe and funded by the state. They’ve also forwarded hundreds of other residents to separate sites such as the county’s mass vaccination clinics at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
For her efforts, Nuñez was awarded the Service With Heart Award by Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker during the March 9 City Council meeting.
“Your effort has saved lives in our community,” Huffaker said.
Nuñez said during the meeting that much of her work had been done over the phone through the Senior Center’s vaccine helpline, 831-768-3279, which is still open for older adults searching for an appointment. She, Rea and a cadre of city employees—including staff from the library and fire departments—have personally set up appointments for Watsonville’s older adults that might have struggled or been unable to access an appointment through the online portal.
The Senior Center’s efforts, Huffaker said, have given the city and county a low-tech and bilingual avenue for which to find Watsonville’s hard-to-reach residents and move them to the front of the perpetually crowded vaccine line.
“That seems to be the biggest hurdle in getting seniors signed up, is going through this technology,” Nuñez said while speaking to the Watsonville City Council at its March 9 meeting.
Taking state data into account, which says that more than 120,000 vaccine doses have been administered in the county, those 2,000 or so people seem to be just a drop in the slowly-filling bucket.
But Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides says those doses have been an essential tool in reaching Watsonville’s most vulnerable residents: older adults who struggle with technology, face a language barrier or do not have access to health care.
“Some of those people don’t have a computer or don’t know how to use it, they wouldn’t have been registered,” she said.
The county health department gives the city a few dozen vaccine appointments at various sites every week. The county also does this with other agencies in the Watsonville area, such as Salud Para La Gente. The aim is to prioritize scarce vaccine allocations from the state to help the hard-hit city.
This month, County Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci said at a press conference Thursday, about 30% of their vaccines have been administered to residents of the 95076 zip code, which encompasses Watsonville. He also said that about 46% of the vaccines administered in the county Wednesday were given to residents of that zip code.
“We’re proud [of those numbers],” Ghilarducci said.
With more than 76% of county residents 65 and above having already received at least their first dose, the county is now having trouble filling the 70-20-10 split (older adults-essential workers-educators) still mandated by the California Department of Public Health, County Health Services Agency Director Mimi Hall said in a recent press conference.
For the city, that has meant Senior Center staff have slowly started to shift from older adults to essential workers by contacting small local employers directly—especially those in downtown and owned by Spanish speaking residents. Employees at Don Rafa’s Super Mercado, D’La Colmena Market and El Frijolito, among others, have received their vaccine thanks to the city’s efforts.
Vides, however, said the Senior Center’s priority is still older adults who struggle with technology, and encouraged anyone above 65 to call the helpline. All others have been asked to register through the state at myturn.ca.gov.
On Monday, the state allowed health care providers to vaccinate people between the ages of 16-64 who are at high medical risk of falling seriously ill because of Covid-19. The state also opened up vaccinations to transit and transportation workers, and residents and staff of homeless shelters, behavioral health facilities, incarceration/detention centers and other at-risk congregate settings.
Vides said Senior Center staff have also started to slowly dip into this pool. Nuñez, for example, signed up several Santa Cruz METRO drivers for Wednesday’s vaccination clinic at the County Fairgrounds. And as vaccine supplies increase, Vides said, they will try to coordinate more inclusive vaccine distribution efforts.
“We’re hoping to facilitate neighborhood clinics to make sure that we continue to increase the access locally,” she said. “All of this makes a big difference.”
Editor’s note: Katie Nuñez is the author’s wife.