A vaccination in Oceanside
A man is vaccinated at a county clinic in Oceanside. Courtesy County News Center

Two decades into the 21 st century, the coronavirus pandemic magnified multiple economic, educational, and social disparities in the worst possible way.

COVID-19 forced many critical services online such as telehealth, delivery of groceries and other goods, community engagement, and even entertainment. No group felt the impact of these changes more acutely than San Diego’s low-income and homeless older adults.

In my role as CEO of Serving Seniors, we’ve worked to correct these disparities for 50 years. Maintaining our critical services, even while having to temporarily shutter our network of senior centers during the pandemic, presented the greatest challenge in our history.

I am proud that our amazing team overcame every obstacle and even upgraded our services over pre-pandemic levels. Finding new ways to stay connected and continue delivering our vital services demanded our determination and creativity.

Fortunately, science came riding to the rescue in record time with the development of three effective vaccines against the coronavirus. Working in coordination with our partners — West PACE, St. Paul’s PACE, San Diego Fire-Rescue, and Cal Fire — we offered vaccination clinics for our clients at multiple facilities. In addition, we worked to deliver vaccinations to homebound older adults.

Now, as science advances its understanding about the coronavirus and studies the emerging variants, we are learning the fight against COVID-19 is still in the early rounds. This week, the Biden Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that booster shots will be offered starting in late September to vaccinated Americans as the highly infectious delta variant continues its nationwide spread.

In a joint statement on Wednesday, top U.S. public health officials said a third dose of Pfizer and Moderna shots “will be needed to maximize vaccine-induced protection and prolong its durability.”

“Based on our latest assessment, the current protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death could diminish in the months ahead, especially among those who are at higher risk or were vaccinated during the earlier phases of the vaccination rollout,” according to the statement from CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The only way to reopen safely is to have the majority of San Diegans vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. Given the extreme vulnerability of older adults, particularly those with underlying health problems, Serving Seniors has been exceptionally cautious about reopening our facilities and providing onsite services. Our Gary and Mary West Wellness Center waited until July 12 to reopen. Our Oceanside Senior Center dining room opened just this week on Aug. 16.

Since then, we have monitored the rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the Delta variant with growing concern. Our older adult clients struggled to get their vaccinations, caused in part by their isolation, and by the impact on their mobility and social connection due to struggling economically – to the point of living on San Diego’s streets. Now we must apply lessons learned and launch efforts to communicate the availability and the need for a third vaccination.

Serving Seniors is committed to vaccinating as many older adults as possible. We have partnered on numerous vaccine clinics in senior housing and facilities. We will press forward as soon as it is feasible to offer the third vaccination to those older adults eligible. We hope to work with our many community partners as well as the County of San Diego to get the word out and begin this effort.

Older adults are the most vulnerable population when it comes to COVID-19. More than 80% of deaths have occurred in seniors 65 and older. We need to redouble our efforts to prevent any renewed grip on our older population to prevent serious illness or deaths.

From a broader perspective, Serving Seniors sees the immense value of our facilities remaining open, providing meals, healthcare, social services, online access, and more as a vital lifeline to all vulnerable older adults in San Diego. We cannot afford to shut down again — and with the availability of effective vaccines and our determination, there is no need for it to happen.

Paul Downey is CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit that helps seniors in poverty live healthy and fulfilling lives.