The Mystery of Imperial County’s Vaccination Rate

The southeastern pocket of California has one of the highest Covid-19 immunization rates in the state.,

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ImageClinicians caring for a Covid-19 patient in the intensive care unit at El Centro Regional Medical Center in July 2020.
Clinicians caring for a Covid-19 patient in the intensive care unit at El Centro Regional Medical Center in July 2020.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

EL CENTRO, Calif. — California’s coronavirus numbers contain what appears to be, at first glance, a pandemic paradox.

Imperial County is a poor and overwhelmingly Latino agricultural region in the state’s southeastern corner. Its demographics are generally linked to lower-than-average Covid-19 vaccination rates.

But the county, which is along the border with Mexico, has an immunization rate that ranks seventh out of the state’s 58 counties, the highest coverage level in Southern California.

Imperial County’s surprisingly high demand for vaccinations has been a mystery for several months, as CalMatters first reported. Some experts cautioned that the numbers may have been boosted by Americans who live in Mexico crossing the border to get their shots.

Still, the level of vaccine coverage in Imperial County — 74 percent of all residents are reported to be fully immunized, compared with 64 percent statewide — is apparently high enough to have kept major Covid-19 surges at bay this year.

Before the vaccines, Imperial County had been battered by the coronavirus. Even now, because of the severity of the outbreaks it suffered in 2020, Imperial County has lost a higher share of its population to Covid-19 than anywhere else in the state.

But while the San Joaquin Valley, which is demographically similar, has endured a seemingly endless onslaught of Covid-19 spikes in 2021, Imperial County has been largely spared. And for that, experts credit the shots.

Dr. Timothy Brewer, an infectious-disease expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he thought that Imperial County might have embraced vaccines in part because of the horror its residents dealt with last year.

With one in five people in the county having tested positive for the coronavirus at some point during the pandemic, almost everyone probably knows a family member, friend or colleague who has gotten the virus — if they haven’t had it themselves.

“They were hit early, and they were hit hard, and it’s possible that because of that, people recognize the importance of getting vaccinated,” Brewer told me. “This wasn’t an abstract problem.”

Covid-19 hospitalizations in Imperial County have recently begun to inch upward, but it’s hard to know whether that will continue or for how long, particularly given the emergence of the Omicron variant. And it’s not yet clear how high demand for booster shots will turn out to be in the county.

On a recent weekday, I drove two hours east from coastal San Diego to El Centro, a town of about 44,000 people and the capital of Imperial County.

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An aerial view of agricultural fields in Imperial County.Credit…Mario Tama/Getty Images

El Centro is essentially how you would imagine a middle-class desert community — plenty of strip malls and mud-colored buildings with flat roofs. But there was no doubt that agriculture was the main game here.

Alongside the highway were hay bales and tractors to tend to the rows of crops stretching to the horizon. Tracts of multistory homes looked out not on parks but plowed fields.

Joe Mathews, a columnist for Zocalo Public Square, recently wrote about unusually high vaccination rates in Imperial Valley as well as in Salinas Valley, another agricultural center. He argued that an unlikely alliance between growers, labor groups, local governments and community advocates helped get people quickly immunized.

In Imperial County, there was widespread collaboration to try to spread the word about the vaccines, said Rosyo Ramirez, deputy director for the community health division of the county’s public health department.

The health department partnered with local clinics and other community organizations to administer shots, opening pop-up sites at churches, farms, hospitals and the U.S.-Mexico border, she said.

“Public health didn’t do this alone. It was a community effort,” she told me.

The effect has been a stunning bucking of trends. In Imperial County, the vaccination rate for Latinos is almost 20 points higher than it is statewide. The vaccination rate for people between the ages of 18 and 49 in the county also far exceeds California’s overall.

“The demographic most represented in Imperial County, which is young adult Latinos, has really embraced getting vaccinated, which is terrific,” Brewer told me.

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Today’s tip comes from Mike McLaughlin, a reader who lives in New York:

“My wife and I lived in Pasadena for three years. My favorite spot and one always on the itinerary for visiting family from the east was Joshua Tree for the rugged terrain and interesting desert plant life. The itinerary always included a stop in 29 Palms for date milkshakes.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


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Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: “This doesn’t look good” (4 letters).

Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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