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The Riverside County Department of Public Health is turning to the Diocese to help provide the COVID-19 vaccine to targeted populations.

Over the past six weeks, five Catholic parishes have collaborated with County workers and community partners to provide more than 2,000 people with the COVID-19 vaccine. Our Lady of Soledad, Coachella; St. Edward, Corona; Our Lady of the Valley, Hemet; Holy Spirit, Hemet and St. Anthony, San Jacinto have all served as vaccination sites. Community partners TODEC and Desert HealthCare District have also been part of the collaborative effort.

At press time Our Lady of the Valley had hosted three different vaccination dates. The parish had indicated in late 2020 that it would be willing to serve as site but did not receive word for several months. Then “it happened very quickly,” according to Business Manager Ivonne Ramirez, as County officials visited the parish in January and the first date happened a week later. The parishes are part of the County’s Equity Vaccination Program which targets lower income individuals, multi-generational households, agricultural workers, and seniors - identified in State census tracts as being high risk.

Hundreds of farm workers from Riverside County were brought to Our Lady of the Valley by bus to receive their vaccination.

“It was wonderful to get the people who work in the fields, those without transportation, those who have trouble with technology,” said Ramirez. “What could be better than helping people who are more vulnerable?”

The parish vaccination sites are the latest chapter in a collaborative relationship between the Emergency Operations Collaborative (EOC) of the Diocese and Riverside County Public Health that began at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parishes served as sites for distribution of the seasonal flu vaccine and then later for COVID-19 testing.

EOC Director Ann Marie Gallant says County officials have long seen the Diocese as key to reaching the more high-risk Hispanic population. So, when vaccines became available for agriculture workers in late January, parishes in the Hemet Valley and Coachella were asked to step forward as sites. The results were a marked improvement over other venues used by the County, says Gallant.

“The County is very happy with our partnership,” she says. “When they hosted testing and vaccination sites at non-parish sites, they were getting only fifty or sixty people responding. Once they held them at our parishes, they were getting 300-350 at an event.”

Each of the parishes has hosted at least two vaccination dates with Our Lady of Soledad already hosting six. There is still an ebb and flow to the availability of the vaccine for those in priority categories, says Gallant, but the pace should improve in the coming months.

“By May, the vaccines should be flowing more regularly and systematically, so I anticipate many more dates at these parishes – and perhaps others in Riverside County,” Gallant said.

For the parishes already involved in the ministry, the vaccination work has provided a welcome opportunity to live out the mission of their church.

“Trying to get back to doing the work of the Church has been difficult,” says Ramirez of the limiting effect of the pandemic. “This helped the community feel like a community again – collaborating for the common good.”