A COVID-19 test site serves Santa Clara County residents. (Bay Area Community Health)

SANTA CRUZ >> In Santa Cruz County and in many other counties across the nation, 18- to 29-year-olds have received fewer Coronavirus vaccinations than other age groups. 

Yet in neighboring Santa Clara County, more than 8 in 10 residents in that age group have been vaccinated against COVID-19.  Santa Clara County also has the highest overall COVID-19 vaccination rate of any large county in the United States — with at least one dose administered to more than 80% of those eligible. That high overall rate is partly because so many young people in Santa Clara County have received COVID shots, according to public health data.

Some key differences have emerged in the two counties’ COVID vaccine situation.

  • About 58% of Santa Cruz County residents ages 20-29 are partially vaccinated, according to county data. Almost 85% of Santa Clara County residents ages 18-29 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to county authorities.
  • Less than 50% of Santa Cruz County teenagers are partially vaccinated in Santa Cruz County. About 69% of Santa Clara teenagers have completed their COVID vaccinations.
  • About 87% of Santa Cruz County residents in their 30s have received at least one dose. About 95% of Santa Clara County residents in their 30s are fully vaccinated.

Despite the lower rate of vaccination among younger people in Santa Cruz County, public health officials are quick to point out that Santa Cruz County’s overall vaccination rate is among the highest of California counties with fewer than 300,000 people.

What is Santa Clara County doing?

Santa Clara County Public Health has relied on over 100 community health workers who have reached more than 100,000 people through on-the-ground outreach and conversations. They also worked closely with community groups.

One of those groups, Bay Area Community Health, ran pop-up clinics in shopping malls, college parking lots, and BART stations. Dr. Harsha Ramchandani, the chief medical officer of Bay Area Community Health, said the support of Santa Clara County Public Health and the city of San Jose were essential to these efforts. 

“I want to applaud the Public Health Department [for] working very closely with all the grassroots organizations and the community based organizations,” Ramchandani said.

  • Walk-in vaccine clinics were held on weekends and evenings to make them more accessible for working parents.
  • Late-night walk-in clinics were held in busy downtown areas with incentives such as a diner discount. 
  • Vaccine clinics were held at Santa Clara County high schools.
  • Partnerships with the San Jose Earthquakes pro soccer team also helped, people involved with the effort said. Players acted as vaccine ambassadors. Prizes were raffled.

San Jose Earthquakes players Oswaldo Alanis, left, and Carlos Fierro get their photo snapped with a participant of a COVID-19 vaccine event on June 10. (San Jose Earthquakes)

Joshua Salomon, a Stanford University professor of medicine, said Santa Clara County Public Health “certainly recognized and responded to the need to bring vaccines to people and their communities, and they did that in a lot of very active ways.” Salomon has been involved in Santa Clara county’s pandemic response. 

Despite the outreach, Santa Clara County officials said they have struggled to reach certain groups. While they report that 95% of Asian residents in Santa Clara County are vaccinated, about 65% of those who identify as Latino, White, and Black are vaccinated, according to county data.

While having 69% of eligible teenagers vaccinated is substantial, this number is still far behind the other age groups in Santa Clara County. The biggest challenge now is misinformation, not access, some leaders said. 

“I think [there’s] really more education still needed for the younger population,” said Ramchandani, the Bay Area Community Health chief medical officer. She said her group is “trying to still reach out to the people and trying to say ‘It’s not just you, as a young kid or as an adult, it’s for the community health that you have to get vaccinations so that you can prevent and contain the disease, and stop this pandemic.”  

Santa Cruz County strategy, results

Santa Cruz County public health officials are implementing many of the same outreach strategies, like school clinics, incentives and community ambassadors. So far, results like Santa Clara County remain elusive.

Some Santa Cruz County leaders said the county’s Health Services Agency has less money, staff and infrastructure than Santa Clara County. Those factors “really helped” Santa Clara County’s vaccine rollout, said Santa Cruz County spokesman Jason Hoppin. 

Other differences in the two counties also may have changed outcomes.

  • Even before the pandemic, Santa Cruz County children who enter Kindergarten have their school-required vaccines at a lower rate than in Santa Clara County, according to state data. That rate could show general hesitancy towards vaccines.
  • Santa Cruz County has many visitors, transient college students and migrant agricultural workers who can be hard to track.

Danielle Solick, co-director of the Santa Cruz County vaccine branch, attributes much of the vaccine disparity for people in their teens and twenties to the dynamics of the Santa Cruz population and the disruptions of summer. “One of the challenges for us in Santa Cruz is that as a tourist spot and as an agricultural migrant hub. We have a lot of transient communities,” Solick said. “[We’re] coming up against summer with people coming and going,” she said. “That’s one of our challenges in this town,” she added.

Solick also said a challenge has been messaging. “There’s just so much messaging that comes out about the efficacy of this vaccine versus that vaccine,” Solick said. 

Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency representatives have said that all three COVID-19 vaccines available in the county effectively prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death. “Although some cases of vaccinated people getting the Delta variant have been reported, these breakthrough infections tend to be mild,” said Corinne Hyland, a Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency representative, in a statement.

Hoppin, the Santa Cruz County spokesman, said the county’s recent rise in cases from the Delta variant could be prodding more young people to get a COVID shot. 

 “This (vaccination rate) number is not where you want it to be, but we are seeing an increase in vaccinations with this recent surge of Delta. I think the message is starting to get through to people,” Hoppin said. Hoppin cited recent outbreaks like the one linked to a concert at the Felton Music Hall as a motivating factor for many unvaccinated young people to get the shots. 

Solick hypothesized that some Santa Cruz residents may just need more time to digest the information available to them. As schools reopen, she thinks that more children and their parents will be motivated to get vaccinated to help maintain in-person schooling without interruptions. 

As classrooms fill up people will “actually feel what it’s like to have their kids back to school in full in-person settings, [and] there will be a little bit more uptake,” Solick said. “There are a lot of requests for vaccine clinics and a lot of offers of partnerships for vaccine clinics, so I think that’s probably indicative of a renewed will.”

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Mallory Pickett is a freelance journalist who covers science and the environment and lives in Santa Cruz.