Congressman Salud Carbajal, center, announces $1.6 million in federal grants for local healthcare centers to promote COVID-19 bivalent booster vaccinations. Credit: Grace Kitayama / Noozhawk photo

Congressman Salud Carbajal joined local health officials at the Santa Barbara County Health Care Center Tuesday to announce $1.6 million in federal grants aimed at increasing COVID-19 bivalent booster vaccination rates on the Central Coast.

“We’ve continued to see vaccines do the job they were meant to do to save lives,” said Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara. “But new variants have meant we need new vaccines. And unfortunately, we are lagging in getting those new boosters out at the same rate as our initial ones.”

Currently, less than 20% of eligible Santa Barbara County residents have received the latest version of the COVID-19 booster, Carbajal said. Nearly 70% of county residents have completed their primary series of vaccinations.

In addition to COVID-19, the winter season has brought rising rates of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV.

“Today is much more than just dealing with the tail end of this pandemic,” Carbajal said. “It’s continuing to work and deal with important other health challenges.”

The federal grants include $1,041,493 for Community Health Centers of the Central Coast; $265,765 for the County of Santa Barbara; $214,258 for Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics; and $112,702 for American Indian Health & Services.

Dr. Ali Javanbakht, Chief Medical Officer of American Indian Health & Services, said the grant funding will help them increase vaccination rates. Credit: Grace Kitayama / Noozhawk photo

It is important for health care officials to identify the barriers to people getting vaccines, whether it be the lack of information, location of vaccine clinics or simply a lack of time, said Dr. Ali Javanbakht, Chief Medical Officer of American Indian Health & Services.  

“The funds would help us look at what is driving the gap in vaccination rates and then see what steps we can take to bridge those gaps.” Javanbakht said.

Javanbakht said vaccines have a more important use in the community beyond simply preventing catching an illness. 

“The most important thing a vaccine can do is to prevent death, the next most important thing is to prevent hospitalization, the next most important is reducing the severity of the disease, and lower on that is preventing the disease in the first place,” Javanbakht said.

“This is for people who may have gotten the flu vaccine or the COVID vaccine and still get the flu or COVID and feel like the vaccine is a failure: Getting the disease is not a sign of the vaccine failure. Living to tell the tale is a sign of the vaccine’s success,” he said.

Dr. Susan Lawton, Chief Medical Officer of Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, said that some of her patients mistakenly believe they are immune to being infected, which is why they will not get a vaccine.

“I’ve had multiple patients tell me that because they’re vegan, they’re not going to get COVID,” Lawton said. “And I tried to convince them all that infectious disease does not care what you do to protect your health.

“Very healthy people have died of COVID. Very young people have died of COVID. Very, very vulnerable people with multiple medical problems have lived through COVID,” Lawton said. “It is one of the most concerning parts of COVID infection is the inability to predict accurately who is going to suffer from severe disease.”

Dr. Susan Lawton, Chief Medical Officer of Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, talked about the difficulty of convincing some patients to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Credit: Grace Kitayama / Noozhawk photo

In addition to receiving a flu shot and booster vaccine before seeing family this holiday season, health officials advised wearing a mask when traveling on an airplane; taking an at-home COVID-19 test before attending a social gathering; holding social gatherings outside whenever possible; and staying home if experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Patients can get flu shots and COVID-19 vaccine shots free of charge. To find appointments or locations for COVID-19 boosters or flu shots, visit

Tuesday’s announcement event also included Dr. Noemi Doohan, Director of Santa Barbara County Public Health Department; Dr. Henning Ansorg, the County Public Health Officer; Ron Castle, CEO of Community Health Centers of the Central Coast; and Dr. Mahdi Ashrafian, CEO of Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics.

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Grace Kitayama, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Grace Kitayama is a Noozhawk staff writer.