Local leaders help bridge vaccine equity gaps in Solana Beach’s Eden Gardens neighborhood

A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech.(Liam McBurney / Pool Photo)
A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech.(Liam McBurney / Pool Photo)

North County communities have some of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in San Diego, but ensuring the shots are available to everyone eligible has been more of a challenge for neighborhoods that face a digital divide, language barrier or other obstacles.

A few local leaders have tried to bridge those gaps in Solana Beach. Lisa Montes, a fourth-generation resident of the city’s La Colonia de Eden Gardens neighborhood, said people “don’t realize that there is a need in Solana Beach,” a coastal enclave more associated with its affluence.

February and March vaccination clinics at a park in Eden Gardens, the center of the city’s Mexican community, helped about 60 local residents receive their shots. Those clinics were followed up by efforts to help residents get vaccinated at the nearby Del Mar Fairgrounds superstation if they had trouble scheduling or getting to appointments on their own. Another clinic in Eden Gardens is scheduled for this weekend to accommodate those who were waitlisted during the first one.

Montes has been going door-to-door to make sure her neighbors know about the clinics and other options to get a COVID-19 vaccine. She said the county could have done a better job reaching out to residents in the area who don’t speak English or have phones, internet or easy transportation. Others, Montes added, may have felt it was best to avoid the process because of their immigration status.

“Even English-speaking people are having trouble getting through these horrendous appointment systems to try to get in to get scheduled for a COVID vaccine,” she said. “So I knew that our community was having issues in terms of not getting appointments.”

Solana Beach City Councilwoman Kelly Harless said she was able to organize the Eden Gardens clinics through a pediatrician friend who was working with a San Diego-based lab that had vaccine doses to distribute to select populations.

“There are many pockets throughout San Diego County where they need boots on the ground, someone who knows the people, someone who speaks Spanish, a team going door-to-door,” Harless said. “That’s really what it takes to reach a lot of these people. Making an online appointment is not a viable option for them.”

In the quadrant of Solana Beach located west of Interstate-5 and south of Lomas Santa Fe Drive, which includes Eden Gardens, there are more residents without an internet subscription than anywhere else in the city, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data. That area is also where most of Solana Beach’s “limited English speaking households” are located.

About 295 per 1,000 Hispanic or Latino residents in San Diego County have been vaccinated, compared to 217 Black residents, 393 Asian residents and 404 white residents, according to county data as of the first week of April.

Susana Arnold, cofounder of the grassroots group SolanaBeach4Equality, said she realized after volunteering at the February clinic in Eden Gardens that the demand was much greater in the neighborhood.

“What I noticed when that was over, there were a few people that started to straggle around and hang out afterward,” added Arnold, who has also helped local residents without their own transportation get to the fairgrounds vaccine superstation. “I was like, there are still so many people we need to do this for.”

One week into April, Solana Beach was one of 17 San Diego communities that surpassed 500 residents per 1,000 who have been vaccinated, according to a county breakdown by zip code — although that particular stat was not calculated for about one-third of the county’s zip codes because their populations were too small. Del Mar was one of five that reached at least 600 per 1,000.

But wealthier neighborhoods have had an advantage in obtaining the vaccine, based on a cross reference of county COVID-19 data with census median income data, even though COVID-19 case numbers are more concentrated in lower-income communities. The county and state governments have announced efforts to try to get the vaccine to communities that have been hardest-hit by the pandemic.

Manny Aguilar, an Eden Gardens resident who leads the nonprofit La Colonia de Eden Gardens, has held food drives and other events to help local residents who have faced the most hardships over the last year. He said his organization is also “just trying to get the word out” about options for getting the vaccine.

“There are a lot of crazy theories out there about how it’s going to cause them to be sterile or they’re putting a chip in you or something like that,” Aguilar said. “So we’re having to be very educational in our approach.”