As soon as Justin Perez left the vaccination clinic, his phone buzzed with a text message.
A former employee had heard a hot rumor about a clinic where anyone, including young people like her, could get a COVID-19 vaccine. The clinic was in Bakersfield.
“I’m in Bakersfield,” wrote Perez, a 35-year-old video game designer from Sherman Oaks, confirming the rumor. “I was injected 20 minutes ago.”
Cal State Bakersfield has been the go-to place for young and healthy people in Los Angeles County for more than a week since it was revealed the facility had more doses than patients – thousands more – and no age and eligibility restrictions or county of residence restrictions. Some vaccine seekers included writers, engineers, and Hollywood actors who said the website welcomed Angelenos with open arms.
People line up at the vaccination site in Cal State Bakersfield.
(Alex Horvath / The Californian)
Thousands of Southern California residents have crossed the grapevine into the Central Valley in the past few days. On Monday night, “Bakersfield” was hot on Twitter, spurred on by a wave of vaccine hunters young and healthy with time for a four-hour road trip. While many may be eligible for the shot at home in about a week, there is no guarantee that appointments will be available immediately.
Bakersfield’s open door policy felt a little surreal to some patients, especially when compared to the busy, rigorous vaccination clinics in LA County. Some have described hurricane days when they woke up expecting they would have to wait weeks to get vaccinated. After seeing a stream of happy social media posts, they decided on a whim to drive up Freeway 5 and get the shot two hours later.
“All the way there and all the way back, my girlfriend and I were pretty dizzy,” said Julie Greiner, 25, a Glendale comedy writer who was given ice cream to celebrate her vaccination. “We thought, did that really happen?”
The site’s overcapacity is due at least in part to a relatively high rate of vaccine reluctance in Kern County, including among Protestant Christians and low-income Color residents, according to Kaiser Permanente officials who help run the clinic. In addition, Kern is young: about 11% of the county’s residents are 65 or older, which means many residents, possibly the majority, have only been eligible for a vaccination in the past few weeks.
About 24% of people living in Kern County received at least one dose, compared with 33% of residents across the state, according to the Los Angeles Times vaccine tracker.
Healthcare worker Cinthia Black vaccinated Jeremiah Wilson on Monday at Kern County Mission, a Bakersfield rescue mission.
(Alex Horvath / The Californian)
Bakersfield officials say it is true that the site vaccinates everyone aged 16 and over. However, they paused to encourage out-of-town visitors, warning that the clinic is intended to serve Kern County’s residents and that the appointment system is reserved for locals.
When officials were planning the site, the idea of people coming from other counties “didn’t really cross our minds,” said David Womack, senior vice president of Kaiser Permanente in Kern County. But the news spread quickly. On the third day, the employees noticed visitors outside the district. Now nurses see “a few hundred” Southern California patients a day, he said.
“We have the capacity, we have the vaccine – it would be a crime to turn people away,” Womack said. “We want to be shot in the arms.”
About two-thirds of patients don’t have appointments, Womack said. The walk-in policy, a rarity for mega-sites, is designed to improve access to vaccines for seniors and others struggling with state appointment software.
The website opened on March 26th. About 900 people were vaccinated daily for the first week, which is less than 20% of the daily capacity of 5,400 shots. About 2,500 people were vaccinated on Monday, and the website was on track to break that record on Tuesday, Womack said.
The site’s popularity skyrocketed last weekend when actor Wil Wheaton, best known for his role in Star Trek: The Next Generation, told his 1.1 million Instagram followers that he had visited. After receiving a Pfizer BioNTech push, he wrote in a caption that he “cried a little” with relief.
“It’s so quick and easy and you don’t jump over the line or take a push away from anyone,” said 48-year-old Wheaton. When he got to the construction site, the process took 40 minutes.
Womack warned that the clinic could potentially start restricting appointments on foot or to specific hours of the day as it slows down the check-in process significantly. He added, “When the day comes when we have to do this, we are just asking people to understand.”
Local officials are assessing the extent of vaccine reluctance among black residents, Latin American immigrants and white evangelicals and how to deal with it, said Kristin Weber, Kaiser’s interim director of public affairs for Kern County. She said the county is working to make the footage available in churches and ward groups are spreading the word about the vaccine.
There are some people who “think really weird stuff,” said Chris Lewis, a construction worker, as he ate a pulled pork sandwich in his truck outside PorkChop & Bubba’s BBQ near Bakersfield High School. But mostly, he said, his staff seem open to the idea of getting vaccinated.
Lewis said he planned to get the shot sometime this year but was in no rush as he recently had COVID-19.
At the campus vaccination station, cars with license plate frames from dealerships in El Monte, Hollywood, Glendale, Alhambra, Carson and Santa Monica were distributed in the parking lot Tuesday morning.
As the patients left, workers in orange T-shirts hooted, applauded and cheered. One yelled: “Congratulations! Tell your friends! ”To a couple wearing Dodger’s hats as they walked back to their car, holding hands.
After being vaccinated on Tuesday, 24-year-old Michael Vargas stopped in front of the clinic exit for a selfie with a cardboard clipping from infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and joked: “Is that true to scale?”
Vargas, a Bakersfield resident who works in pest control, said he was recently eligible but was afraid to find an appointment. When a friend visiting Cal State Bakersfield told him he could get vaccinated on entering, he decided to stop by. He was vaccinated less than an hour later.
The process was so simple that Vargas said he intended to encourage his friends and family to come.
Max Folkman, a 33-year-old West Hollywood video game writer, pulled up with his roommate early this morning after seeing success stories on Twitter and Reddit. A few days earlier, a friend had gotten off Freeway 5 while driving to Seattle and had himself vaccinated.
Folkman was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the vaccination went, he said – and as they walked back to the parking lot, they saw several workers cheering them on and a heron standing next to their car.
“It seemed like a good omen,” said Folkman.
Karla Hernández, 35, who lives in Koreatown, LA, feared Central Valley residents would not be vaccinated because of the spread of misinformation in the community.
She stopped at Los Reyes Market in South Bakersfield after getting vaccinated before returning to LA. She spoke to some of the staff, asked them if they knew anything about the campus, and assured them that the vaccine was safe.
“It’s my business that not enough Bakersfield people leave,” she said.