When the pandemic hit last spring, my family saw images of America’s deserted streets, overrun hospitals, and dead bodies stored in refrigerated trucks on the internet. From Vietnam, my mother begged me to go “home” because it was “safe” there. She feared for my life, but now, more than a year after her begging, I fear for hers. 

While California has fully reopened and over 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, the battle to end this pandemic is far from over. As the state works to provide vaccines to all of its people by any means available, I cannot help but think of my family in Vietnam who are desperately waiting for their turn to receive these life-saving vaccines. 

As I have discovered many times since I came to America, this is truly the land of opportunity, and access to the COVID-19 vaccines has made that clear now more than ever. As we work to reach those who have yet to be vaccinated, I picture those living outside of the United States, in countries where they do not have the same luxury to protect themselves at the speed and convenience that we do. 

Beating the pandemic is within reach thanks to these vaccines, yet millions of Californians remain unvaccinated. Most of them are Black and Brown people, working in low paying jobs where they cannot afford to get sick. In the census headcount, we call these individuals the hard-to-count—before I started working for the U.S. Census Bureau, I was one of them. 

When I first came to America, I lived in cramped apartments with other Vietnamese refugees. We had escaped from Vietnam, and tended to be wary of government officials. Had someone come to us, explaining in Vietnamese the benefit of being counted, we would have participated. Like the Census, in this Vaccinate ALL 58 campaign we have learned that the last ones to be vaccinated are the hardest to reach. 

That is why it will take all of us to reach them now—people in our communities who may be hesitant to come in contact with the government, who may not have easy access to trustworthy information, and who simply may not have the privilege of time and travel to receive a vaccine. Our community and faith leaders, neighbors, family, and friends are the best resources we have to motivate the Californians who have not yet taken the opportunity to receive this life-saving vaccine. 

To outrun the new variants, which have forced many countries around the globe back into lockdowns, we need to get more Californians vaccinated. This is the only way out of this pandemic, and we are so lucky to have the chance to protect ourselves readily available. 

Sonny Lê (right) and his family. Courtesy: Sonny Lê

Because of my mother’s failing memory, I have tried to visit Vietnam at least once a year. I could not go last year because of the pandemic. I am now fully vaccinated, but Vietnam is in lockdown, and appears to be far from reaching a place to put COVID-19 behind them. My biggest fear is that the next time I see my mother, she may not remember who I am. 

Sonny Lê is the Bay Area Regional Program Manager of Vaccinate ALL 58, California’s COVID-19 vaccination initiative. He directed the Census Bureau’s 2000, 2010 and 2020 Census regional outreach effort. Sonny’s first home in America was in San Francisco Tenderloin District, sharing an apartment with 10 other Vietnamese refugees. He has been a community organizer, freelance journalist, and a medical interpreter for over 20 years.