Feature Story

Joining the Mass COVID-19 Immunization Effort in California

By Ida Eva Zielinska

A care recipient receives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Tzu Chi USA’s vaccination event in California. Photo/Wesley Tsai


The tracks of the COVID-19 pandemic globally are tragic, with waves upon waves of infection and death crashing upon the shores of one nation after nation, leaving their populations in shock, terrified, and suffering. Here in the United States, as of May 1, 2021, a total of 573,796 people had lost their lives due to COVID-19.

Hope in the pandemic’s containment and its eventual end appeared on the horizon in mid-December 2020, when the U.S. launched a mass immunization program. The nation’s faith in vaccination is paying off, as at the beginning of May, with over 44% of the population having received the first dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine and more than 31% fully vaccinated, the number of weekly confirmed cases and deaths in the United States was dramatically lower than in months before.

While our volunteers continue to distribute personal protective equipment (PPE) across the country, Tzu Chi USA has also joined the national mass vaccination effort. By the morning of May 1, when Tzu Chi USA and the Buddhist Tzu Chi Medical Foundation (TCMF) were about to start administering the vaccine at another of their large-scale vaccination events in California, around 10,000 people had already received a dose thanks to their initiatives.   

California residents wait their turn to get vaccinated at one of Tzu Chi USA’s large-scale outreach events. Photo/Jennifer Chien

We are fortunate that TCMF attained the Federally Qualified Health Center Look-Alike (FQHC) designation in October 2020, since this status has facilitated our obtaining supplies of the vaccine.

Being an FQHC, we do have a special route, or, I guess, an easier way of obtaining the vaccine. Fortunately, we’ve been able to get a steadier supply of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Stephen Denq, CEO of TCMF is thankful that the clinics attained Federally Qualified Health Center Look-Alike designation as it expands their capacity. Photos/Shuli Lo

Tzu Chi’s vaccination programs began by targeting three groups: People who work at the frontline in healthcare professions; anyone over 65 in the general public; and those who got the first dose elsewhere and could not get their second. Once TCMF obtained a supply of the COVID-19 vaccine issued by the government, the first public vaccination drive took place at Tzu Chi Medical Center in Alhambra, California, in February. A subsequent vaccine administration program followed in El Monte a few weeks later.

People 65 years and older are among the first groups to be served by Tzu Chi USA’s vaccination initiatives. Photos/Wesley Tsai

Providing the COVID-19 vaccination service is painstaking and demands careful transportation with constant monitoring of the vaccine’s temperature even before it reaches the administration site, and controlling it after, as well.

Administering the vaccines is not very straightforward, I mean, we have to keep the vaccines at a certain temperature when we transport it from the county over to our clinics. From clinic to clinic, we have to make sure that each step is really meticulous. We check the temperatures on arrival at the next site and then we make sure that before we even start to draw the vaccines that they are appropriately thawed.

Great care is taken while transporting the vaccine to an administration site. Photos/Yingli Yang

The administration of the vaccine also requires a large team of both medical professional and general volunteers:

To serve 150 people we need about a total 40 of the volunteers to do the job.

The volunteers on the teams are happy to serve their communities, and they will go out of their way to do so.  Some are retired medical professionals eager to step up and help:

I’m a retired nurse. I have my RN license and my NP license. I’ve just come to help the whole day.

Others travel a great distance to reach the vaccination site, but hardly mind:

I think I left Sacramento around 8:00 PM, and when I arrived about 3:00 AM in Los Angeles, I just slept a couple of hours. I feel energized.

The reward for their dedication is the gratitude they receive from the public and the joy of seeing how each vaccinated person can leave feeling safer and equally more secure about not infecting others.

Another vital component of Tzu Chi’s public vaccination program is facilitating registration, especially for seniors, one of the early target groups. “Elderly patients… it’s that you have to sign up online. And they don’t know how to use the internet, they can’t get on, they can’t fight for these spots,” TCMF’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lam explains. To steer around this obstacle, Tzu Chi set up a telephone service.

We have a group of Tzu Chi volunteers to operate what we used to call a ‘hotline.’ So, it’s as simple as making a phone call, and our volunteers on our end will do everything else for them.

Jackson Chen, Chief Executive Officer of Tzu Chi USA, is well aware that many volunteers must serve to make Tzu Chi’s vaccination programs possible, yet they are most willing and happy to help. Photo/James Huang
A Tzu Chi volunteer answers calls on Tzu Chi USA’s “hotline,” helping people register for vaccination and answering any questions they may have. Photo/Dan Ferrara

The hotline was a hit, with vaccine recipients later reporting how, “Luckily, the phone call and appointment went smoothly so I can come here today,” or “I thought it was really easy. And it’s very efficient the registration, just nothing at all.” Others went a step further in their positive response, one vaccine recipient sharing that, “I advised many of my senior friends to make a vaccination appointment at Tzu Chi because coming here is just so convenient.”

A senior California resident receives a dose of the vaccine, thankful for how easy the whole process was thanks to the efforts of Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Jennifer Chien

The consensus was overwhelmingly positive:

Your [vaccination] service is wonderful. I’m grateful from the bottom of my heart.

Such reactions were music to the ears of everyone involved, especially Tzu Chi Medical’s Chief Executive Officer and Chief Medical Officer. Dr. Denq heartfully expressed that “Every dose given is more relief because that means one extra person is protected.” Dr. Lam echoed that sentiment, saying, “Tzu Chi is ready and willing to vaccinate and serve as many people as we possibly can. It’s the first step moving forward. It’s the first sign of hope for our community.”

Given their far-reaching aspirations, Tzu Chi Medical’s attainment of FQHC Look-Alike status is truly a blessing as it expands the range of outreach as well, going beyond metropolitan areas to rural and remote regions.

It basically allows us to work more closely with the federal government to reach harder to reach communities, underserved areas, underprivileged people, underinsured people.

Community partnerships also strengthen this capacity, enabling mobile vaccination efforts such as those Tzu Chi USA initiated in Fresno County, where agricultural operations account for almost half of the land. The program targeted migrant farmworkers, a workforce that includes undocumented families and indigenous peoples, both populations that often don’t have enough knowledge about or access to the vaccine.

Tzu Chi USA’s vaccination outreach in Fresno County targets migrant farmworkers, who may have limited information about and access to getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Photo/Sarah Winters

A long-standing collaboration with Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno made this outreach program for agricultural workers possible. Saint Agnes Medical Center provided the vaccine, and Tzu Chi USA’s mobile clinics traveled directly to rural areas in the vicinity to administer it. That can make a world of difference for some care recipients, like the Mendozas, who received the vaccine in San Joaquin, where they live:

We just walked over because my husband no longer drives and so it was easier for us to be closer. For us, it was excellent.

Ana Mendoza and her husband are grateful that they could get vaccinated right near their home, thanks to Tzu Chi USA’s mobile clinic outreach. Photo/Sarah Winters

It’s a blessing for many, in fact, as Susanne Chen, Lead Registered Nurse for Tzu Chi Medical, confirms, saying, “They’re underserved out here, so it’s great that we’re able to travel and come out here and make it more convenient for them to get to us. They don’t have to travel as far.”

For Saint Agnes Medical Center, partnering with Tzu Chi USA has advantages beyond its capacity to provide mobile medical services:

We’ve been partners for a long time and Tzu Chi has always been the provider who can very quickly mobilize volunteers, nurses, doctors. It is really important for us to partner with organizations who are trusted and who are community champions especially when we’re talking about the vaccine because there’s been so many myths. Because they are trusted, people will sign up and come and get the vaccine.

Ivonne Der Torosian, Vice President, Community Health & Well-Being at Saint Agnes Medical Center, knows how partnering with Tzu Chi USA’s Fresno Service Center benefits the community. Photo/Sarah Winters

Indeed, while getting the shot is free, which is essential since migrant workers don’t necessarily have health insurance, some are reluctant to get vaccinated. It requires persistence combined with a gentle approach, taking the time to answer questions and address any concerns.

This strategy was most beneficial during Tzu Chi’s outreach in partnership with the Centro Binacional para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO), the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities. The nonprofit’s staff speak indigenous languages and endeavor to inform community members about local vaccination opportunities and help them schedule an appointment.

Oralia Maceda, Program Coordinator at CBDIO, is glad to partner with Tzu Chi USA’s Fresno Service Center in this vaccination outreach. Photo/Sarah Winters

When Tzu Chi was bringing its vaccination services to the region, CBDIO’s volunteers set out to do their part, going directly into the fields to share the news, and patiently assuage any fears.

When we talked with the farmworkers, they would say, ‘Oh, but I need more information.’ ‘What is the side effect if I take the vaccine?’ ‘Do I need to pay for the vaccine?’ ‘What is the difference between one vaccine and the other?’ When we answered their questions, they said, ‘Oh, okay, I want to take the vaccine.’

Going out of the way to convince agricultural workers to get vaccinated is critical for their protection, according to CBDIO’s outreach team:

It’s important to get the vaccine because they’re around a lot of people, and you never know if someone is positive, and they still come to work sometimes because they need to pay rent, bills.

Oralia Maceda, Program Coordinator at CBDIO, is glad to partner with Tzu Chi USA’s Fresno Service Center in this vaccination outreach. Photo/Sarah Winters

Moreover, for those who conquered their misgivings and got their vaccine thanks to Tzu Chi USA’s mobile outreach, it turned out to be both pleasant and reassuring.

My wife and I have six children, so we’re a family of eight. They visited the field where we work and gave us some information. We got the number and communicated from there. It was easy, very easy. The staff took very good care of us. They were very friendly and gave us good information about the vaccine so we can protect ourselves, protect our relatives around us

Many attend Tzu Chi USA’s vaccination outreach in Fresno County. Photo/Dan Ferrara

Steven Voon, Executive Vice President at Tzu Chi Medical, in charge of Tzu Chi USA’s mobile clinics, is adamant about maintaining the services offered, confirming that “We’re committed to doing [outreaches] three times a week, every week.” His partners at Saint Agnes Medical Center couldn’t agree more, Ivonne Der Torosian, Vice President, Community Health and Well-Being, adding, “We’ll continue to come back until the people don’t need us anymore.”

Steven Voon, Executive Vice President at Tzu Chi Medical, is always actively involved during mobile clinic outreach programs. Photo/Sarah Winters

And, in Steven Voon’s heart and vision, there’s always room for broadening the reach of Tzu Chi USA’s mobile clinic service:

Hopefully, we can expand using this model of mobile clinics, expand to Los Angeles, Northern California, and New York where we have mobile clinics that can pick up the same role with other partners and do the vaccinations.

Whether in California’s more remote regions or the middle of metropolitan Los Angeles, people are grateful for the vaccination programs we provide. Susan Chen, Lead Registered Nurse at Tzu Chi Medical, sums up their sentiments beautifully:

The patients feel like they’ve won a lottery. They feel like, you know, that there’s hope for the future. They’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel now.

Back in Los Angeles County, the vaccination event that took place on May 1 provided the first or second dose of the vaccine to community residents, thanks to the service of 70 volunteers, 16 nurses, and two doctors. Everyone on the team is ready and will continue to assist in the national COVID-19 immunization effort. Their one plea to you, dear reader, is to please get vaccinated too, if you haven’t done so already, to protect yourself and everyone around you.

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