New report reveals stark COVID-19 disparities in Belle Haven

An eye-opening new investigative report from community organization Belle Haven Action uncovered stark disparities in rates of COVID-19 in the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, whose residents include a large majority of people of color who are more likely to be essential workers, mirroring COVID-19 disparities around the nation. The research revealed that Belle Haven residents, who account for 15.6% of the city’s population, have experienced 50.3% of Menlo Park’s total number of COVID-19 cases.

These disparities in the rates of COVID-19 across Menlo Park had been invisible for a year because the county only reported data by city until recently.  

Given the legacy of residential segregation and disinvestment in Menlo Park, and in many San Mateo County cities, it should have been an immediate priority to gather data by census tract.   Thankfully, we have the data now – and it’s clear why we needed it from the start.  Since the statistics for Belle Haven, in census tract 6117, were averaged together with the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods of Menlo Park, Belle Haven did not emerge as a hot spot. Yet the infection rate there is 14%, as compared to 2.7% in the rest of Menlo Park.  These impacts were not made clear until Belle Haven Action published its report.

Belle Haven Action recommended that to address the disparities, San Mateo County must use trusted messengers to bring the resources directly to the communities with the highest infection rates, which are communities of concern with high shares of households with minority or low-income status, seniors, and people who have limited English proficiency. Serving as known and trusted messengers, Belle Haven Action has set up testing sites and, most recently, a vaccination clinic in the community. To locate a testing and/or vaccination site in the Belle Haven community please visit: https://www.bellehavenaction.org/testing.html

In addition, Belle Haven and nearby communities of concern  in East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks have been excluded from eligibility for COVID-19 vaccine prioritization targeted at communities of concern, on the basis of data is reported by city and zip code instead of finer-grained census tracts.

Demanding a City Council Priority

The Belle Haven Action report helped to strengthen advocacy by Belle Haven residents, supported by Menlo Together, for the City of Menlo Park to set COVID-19 response and recovery as a City Council priority.  The city can provide funding, resources, and communication assistance to connect Belle Haven residents to services provided by the county and state, by partnering with trusted neighborhood-based organizations and leaders. Local elected officials and trusted messengers must be at the table when planning testing and vaccinations in the communities of concern.

At a recent City Council discussion about priorities for the coming year, sharp questioning by Council Member Taylor revealed that the City had not previously identified a point person on staff to focus on COVID-19 response, and the perception of city senior staff was that because the County has primary responsibility for public health, the City does not have a major role to play.  The meeting is recorded here, and the discussion runs from 4:26 to 5:30 in the video. 

In response to Council Member Taylor questioning and resident demands, City Council demanded a higher priority for COVID-19 response by the city, with actions including:

  • assigning a staff person focused on COVID-19 response
  • listening for community needs
  • providing a bridge between state/county programs and Menlo Park resident needs
  • supporting community based organizations that are effective at communicating with residents in Belle Haven
  • allocating new federal relief funds to address COVID-19 disparities
  • supporting prioritization of vaccines for Belle Haven and neighboring communities in East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks (see below). 

Demanding a fair share of vaccines and relief funds

Local residents have recently received the support of state legislators Josh Becker and Mark Berman in calling attention to the need to allocate COVID-19 resources by census tract, instead of zip code or city, to ensure that low-income communities of color in the Bay Area receive vaccine priority and a fair share of relief funding. This is especially important for communities in San Mateo County zip codes– with high incomes and good health indicators relative to the rest of the state– as they have not benefited from the state’s strategy to prioritize vaccine distribution to the lowest-income, highest-risk areas of California. 

The COVID-19 disparities echo the shocking but familiar stories of underinvestment and insufficient attention to low-income committees of color in our area and nationwide.  

Action Steps:

Here are some steps you can take to reinforce the hard work of our local leaders in revealing the inequities and demanding attention and resources to address them.

* Support Belle Haven Action with your volunteer time and/or donations

* Write the governor to support State allocation of COVID-19 resources by census tract  https://govapps.gov.ca.gov/gov40mail/ 

* Let Menlo Park City Council know by their priority-setting meeting on April 13 that you support the participation and leadership of local community-based organizations in communities of concern, especially as more resources from federal relief funds become available for COVID-19 response.  Send email to city.council@menlopark.org

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