The Latino Task Force's COVID support sites provide free, low-barrier care. The end of the federal emergency and reduced DPH funding puts them all at risk.
Mara Cavallaro reports on mental health and healthcare inequality in the Latinx community for El Tecolote via Report for America. Photos by Benjamin Fanjoy.
When the COVID vaccine arrived at the Unidos en Salud testing site on 24th and Capp, Susana Rojas brought her whole family to get vaccinated. “You name it, I brought them,” she says. “It’s so important [to] take care of yourself, your loved ones, and the community.”
Now, the Latino Task Force’s communications chair is urging the whole neighborhood to get vaccinated while we still can. “Once the [federal] emergency response goes away, everything that we’ve been able to provide for free [can] have a charge, and people will need insurance,” she told El Tecolote. “So take advantage now, get your [vaccine, get your boosters], don’t be afraid of testing. Once … the federal government says that we’re no longer under emergency, then all of the funding goes away, and everything becomes chargeable.”
Just four days later, on January 30, the Biden administration did exactly what Rojas predicted: it announced a plan to end the national public health emergency on May 11.
From then on, the federal government will no longer cover costs of testing, vaccination, or Paxlovid — nor will it guarantee that they are offered for free by providers. Instead, it will be up to states to determine whether or not COVID care will be paid for. In California, despite Gov. Newsom’s designation of February 28 as the end of the local state of emergency, vaccines ordered by a physician will remain free for people on Medicare and Medi-Cal, the Chronicle reported. Patients with private insurance should continue to have their vaccinations covered if they’re administered by in-network providers.
But already, “people with low incomes, food insecurity, eviction risk, and no health insurance [struggle] to make or attend vaccine appointments, even [when] shots [are] widely available,” Ed Yong reported for the Atlantic. In the Mission, part of what makes the Latino Task Force’s sites so successful is that they present very few barriers — you can get tested and vaccinated without insurance or an ID. When life-saving prevention and treatment is no longer free or easily accessible, how many more lives will be lost? How many people will develop long COVID? How many will lose work?
“Once access to free services is … solely available in health centers or through pharmacies, that is going to further health disparities,” Dr. Carina Marquez, co-founder of Unidos en Salud, told El Tecolote. “We see that low-barrier access is helping … [so] sustain[ing] these projects [of] care delivery outside of the system is going to be really important.”
Between the Latino Task Force’s three COVID support sites — 701 Alabama and Unidos in the Mission, and 20 Norton in the Excelsior — over 60,000 COVID vaccine doses and over 30,000 pediatric shots have been administered. “A large proportion [went to people who] are uninsured … or can’t easily access a clinic,” Marquez said. By June of last year, over 230,000 COVID tests had been done on-site, and over 200,000 at-home kits had been distributed. When people test positive, the Latino Task Force (LTF) provides “food, PPE, and cleaning supplies … for the duration of the isolation period,” Rojas says.
But on December 31st, before the federal government’s announcement, the LTF’s grant with the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) ended. As a result, eight people were laid off and hours were reduced, Rojas said. City funding for culturally competent COVID outreach services was cut, and the LTF is dipping into its resource hub money to continue its efforts. At this rate — with the end of federal and most DPH funding — the LTF has enough money to maintain its sites through June 30, Tracy Gallardo, one of the coalition’s founders, says. Beyond that, they likely will not be able to continue without additional city or state support.
This outcome would be devastating — a blow to the progress community sites have made not only in narrowing COVID care equity gaps but also healthcare equity gaps more broadly. In addition to COVID testing, vaccinations, boosters, and treatment, Unidos en Salud provides RSV, flu, HIV, and diabetes tests. The site acts as a gateway to longer-term care, helping to connect patients with Medi-Cal.
In short, community health sites are still essential, and there is a lot that still needs to be done to prevent ongoing loss. “We still have a lot of work to do with bivalent boosters,” Marquez said. In San Francisco, which boasted primary series vaccination rates of 86 percent, only 37 percent of the eligible population has received the latest booster. Among the city’s Latinx residents, fewer still have the newest shot — just 24 percent. “There’s a lot of great data showing how well [bivalent boosters] are doing in terms of preventing severe outcomes for COVID, especially for older people,” Marquez added. “Come get the bivalent if you haven’t yet.”
The SFDPH, when asked about the status of negotiations for continued funding, did not comment directly on the subject — instead emphasizing that they continue to “fund vaccine services at the 24th and Capp site,” as well as the vendors who provide testing and vaccines to “impacted communities.” But with the removal of the safety net that was federal emergency status, San Francisco needs to do more to ensure public health, not limit its scope of support.
In California, about 40 people continue to die every day of COVID. On average, in the first week of February, nearly four thousand people got infected daily — and of them, an estimated ten to 30 percent will develop some form of long COVID. For those who work precarious jobs, or who may not have sick pay, a COVID infection can mean loss of the income necessary to cover basic needs. One study from last fall found that 22 percent of surveyed Latines lost jobs due to COVID, and 33 percent had lost wages because they missed work.
“We were the ones who got COVID testing and services in the Mission. Because before that, the city was putting it in Embarcadero, in the Marina — like what happened to the people of color? What happened to the Black folks and the brown folks?” Aleks Zavaleta, who helps run the LTF’s test sites, asked. Nearly three years later, after repeated proof that Latines in San Francisco have been and continue to be disproportionately harmed by COVID, we shouldn’t still have to be asking that same question.
For free COVID testing, visit 701 Alabama St. on Thursdays from 10AM-3PM, 24th & Capp St. on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 9AM to 3:45 PM, or 20 Norton St. on Mondays from 10AM to 5PM.
For free COVID vaccines, visit 701 Alabama St. on Thursdays from 11AM-3PM, 24th & Capp Sr. on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 9AM to 3:45 PM, or 20 Norton St. on Thursdays and Saturdays from 11 AM-4:45 PM or Saturdays from 9:30AM to 3:30PM.