Putting equity at the center of vaccine coverage

Oaklandside staffers hand out flyers with COVID-19 vaccine information.

The experience of Oaklanders through the coronavirus pandemic varied to a large extent depending on where people lived. In the prosperous – and generally white – neighborhoods in Oakland’s hills or in North Oakland, rates of infection, hospitalization and death stayed low through the months of lockdown.

But in neighborhoods like Fruitvale or West Oakland, health disparities long pre-date the pandemic. Those differences inevitably showed up in fighting the virus.

When vaccines became available in early 2021, The Oaklandside set out to report on vaccine availability and reliable information. The editors were particularly determined to find ways to get trusted information into the neighborhoods where the virus had been devastating.

On its website, The Oaklandside published a straightforward vaccine guide in English and Spanish, answering questions like “Where can I make an appointment?”, “I’m undocumented. Will I be able to get vaccinated?”, and “How can I get help getting to my appointment?”. In March through May, at the peak of interest in vaccine availability, Oaklandside’s guide accounted for nearly 20% of total traffic to the site.

Spanish language vaccine poster. Photo Amir Aziz

In partnership with El Timpano, The Oaklandside translated COVID-19 vaccine information into Spanish and posted flyers around the city. CREDIT: Amir Aziz, The Oaklandside.

But to get to populations in Oakland not attuned to sourcing information on the web, The Oaklandside added two other elements to its information push. First, posters and flyers (again in English and Spanish) with key vaccine information were distributed in underserved neighborhoods through community centers, health clinics and affixed to bus stops, telephone posts, and trees. The posters and flyers also encouraged readers to subscribe to The Oaklandside’s free text service (built using the Subtext platform). Through a partnership with El Timpano, the text service was also offered in Spanish.

More than 3,000 people signed up for the text service. Oaklandside pushed notifications that pointed to new reporting on availability or new information about the vaccine rollout. Subscribers could also reply with the text service and the Oaklandside reporters who were working on the vaccine story replied with information verified by their reporting, or pointed texters to other reliable sources.

One of the best things while this campaign was happening, was when people would unsubscribe from our text message services, telling us they didn't need our service anymore because we'd helped them get vaccinated.

To demystify vaccination, The Oaklandside launched a series talking to people in the city’s hardest-hit communities about how and why they got vaccinated. For example, an East Oakland pastor explained how she got vaccinated to lead by example, while a native Oaklander and essential worker said she got vaccinated to show her commitment to public safety and the common good.