By: Eric Ruble
More than 85% of eligible Pasadena residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 93% have received at least one shot. The city’s vaccination rate is one of the highest in California and notably higher than that of L.A. County, where 65% of residents have received both doses. The remarkable feat is thanks in large part to University of Southern California and USC Price School of Public Policy alumni who hold several key positions in the Pasadena Public Health Department (PPHD).
Price graduates attribute the city’s success to understanding the community’s needs, partnering with trusted leaders and using data-based messaging – all tactics they honed at USC.
An ‘eye on equity’
Kellee O’Rourke (MPA ’04) was working as a management analyst in Parks, Recreation and Community Services when the pandemic began. As case numbers and hospitalizations rose, she was asked to assist PPHD.
She quickly realized that her commitment to improving residents’ wellbeing aligned well with PPHD’s mission.
“For me, a driving passion has always been serving with and for the community,” said O’Rourke, who began working for Pasadena in 2014.
She led public information efforts about case rates, safety protocols, vaccine efficacy and vaccine access. She has also helped provide the Pasadena Unified School District with guidance as it transitioned back to in-person learning. All the while, O’Rourke said she and her peers had a “constant eye on equity.”
“We need to have the most vulnerable, the most disenfranchised in our community at the center of what we do,” O’Rourke said.
She said the pace of the pandemic has been the most grueling aspect of her work during the last 18 months. Public health guidance would change according to case numbers and as scientists learned more about the virus. Ensuring Pasadena residents were well-informed amid these shifts forced O’Rourke to be flexible.
“The strong foundation that I received through the MPA program at USC has really given me the confidence, the skills and the technical expertise to be able to successfully transition into various roles and still perform at a high level,” O’Rourke said.
When vaccines first became available, the city had trouble keeping up with demand. Like most other American municipalities, there were far more people wanting the shot than there were available doses.
“We were really trying to make sure those most at-risk were served first and served well,” O’Rourke said.
As eligibility requirements widened and supply increased, O’Rourke and her colleagues faced a new problem: reaching people who had no internet access. With libraries and recreation centers closed, some low-income residents struggled to learn about the vaccine and where to receive it.
PPHD launched a phone-call campaign to help educate residents about the vaccine. It also worked with the Pasadena Outreach Response Team to reach homeless individuals. In Los Angeles County, unhoused people are 50% more likely to die if they get COVID-19, according to the L.A. Times.
“We were very proactive about reaching out to them early in the process and often to ensure they have access to the vaccine,” O’Rourke said.
Collaborating with community leaders
A critical part of PPHD’s vaccine rollout strategy involved turning to trusted community leaders to help residents understand how vaccines work and why being vaccinated will help end the pandemic.
“The issues that we’re encountering in our communities are so complex that there is not one single person or one single organization that’s capable of resolving them,” said Manuel Carmona (MPA ’06), the deputy director of PPHD.
PPHD held vaccination clinics at churches, parks, schools and a variety of community events.
“It’s been critical for us in designing our vaccine outreach strategies to motivate people from the Latinx and Black communities to get a vaccine,” said Carmona, who has been with PPHD since 2014. “We’re working with stakeholders who have established trust with those communities over the years.”
Like O’Rourke, Carmona said addressing social justice issues was integral in his Price education.
“One of the things that drew me to USC was a commitment to public service,” Carmona said. “That’s something that really came to life in our classrooms and in our materials.”
Carmona took many of his Price classes at the USC State Capital Center in Sacramento, allowing him to work for the capital city while pursuing his degree. He said that while he brought his experience in municipal government to the classroom, his peers provided perspectives from the county, state and federal levels.
“It was working together to look at these very complex issues and drawing on these real-life professional experiences to be innovative,” Carmona said.
A data-driven approach
PPHD has been battling vaccine hesitancy since the first doses were delivered to California in late 2020.
Distilling critical but often complex data into something residents can digest has been one of the keys ways in which Angelo Reyes (MPP ’06) has used his Price degree.
“[Providing] data-informed answers that can help dispel the myths and allay the fears – that’s been a big challenge given the evolving understanding of and response to the pandemic,” said Reyes, a program coordinator who has worked for PPHD since 2016.
Throughout the pandemic, Reyes helped both private and public schools determine how to allow students to safely return to on-campus instruction and participate in extracurricular activities, including youth sports. These were especially sensitive subjects, as families were concerned about students’ mental health and their ability to earn college scholarships.
A father to three daughters, Reyes kept parents’ concerns top-of-mind while he worked to inform Pasadena’s data-based policies.
“At Price, I learned a lot about how to effectively communicate data analyses with community stakeholders and public service partners alike,” he said.
Reyes said USC’s considerable presence in the health department – largely from Price and Keck School of Medicine alumni – has provided camaraderie throughout the pandemic.
“That support system has been instrumental in keeping us as positive as we can be, even in the most challenging times,” Reyes shared.
Lessons learned for the future
The challenges of the last 18 months have provided a bright silver lining: public health departments nationwide are better prepared to tackle the next crisis – especially because the general public has become more aware of the important role the departments play.
“COVID-19 has really elevated the public’s understanding of what public health does in terms of communicable disease prevention,” Carmona said.
And while PPHD remains focused on the present and vaccinating as many people as possible, its staff hopes it can one day apply lessons learned during COVID-19 to other efforts aimed at improving residents’ quality of life – like increasing access to nutritious foods or solving disparities in infant mortality.
“Why don’t we start by talking to the people who live in the communities that are most affected by these issues?” Carmona said. “I look forward to having those conversations and working with our community partners to solve those really complex problems.”
Until then, PPHD will continue its cooperative approach as it works toward emerging from the pandemic with new tools to serve the community.