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San Francisco Is Over 70% Vaccinated — But It's Not Quite Time To Pop The Champagne

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Right now, two cities lead the nation in vaccinations - Seattle and San Francisco. Some 70% of eligible residents in both places are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And that's good timing for the Bay Area, as California is set to drop pandemic restrictions tomorrow. But as Lesley McClurg from member station KQED explains, it's not quite time to pop the champagne.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: A group of enthusiastic college students with clipboards and matching T-shirts tries to engage passing San Francisco locals.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello. We have free COVID-19 vaccinations available for everyone 12 and over.

MCCLURG: Most people in the working-class neighborhood shrug off the students.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Have you got your COVID vaccine yet?

MCCLURG: But every once in a while, they snag someone, like John Young.

JOHN YOUNG: I just got my shot. I got the first one.

MCCLURG: He's held off until now because...

YOUNG: I hate shots. I hate needles.

MCCLURG: Other folks, like Samuel Padilla-Macias, have just been too busy.

SAMUEL PADILLA-MACIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

MCCLURG: He says he doesn't have time because he works both at a restaurant and a construction site. Today he happens to have a long lunch break, so he signed up. This intersection is part of San Francisco's secret sauce driving up vaccination rates.

BERTA HERNANDEZ: The corner - we call it the magic corner (laughter).

MCCLURG: Berta Hernandez works for the Department of Public Health.

HERNANDEZ: Our presence here is really important, and it has a lot of value. And they knock doors, walk the streets, put up flyers on the businesses. They have been doing that from the beginning.

MCCLURG: Hernandez says grassroots efforts in neighborhoods like this are paired with mobile clinics that travel directly to people's houses. The city also has huge vaccination sites in event centers and parking lots.

NAVEENA BOBBA: So all of our high-volume sites were put into communities that were disproportionately impacted by COVID.

MCCLURG: Dr. Naveena Bobba leads San Francisco's Department of Public Health. She says a mix of venues and working with faith and community leaders is making a difference. Yet, she says, public health officials can't take all the credit.

BOBBA: You know, San Franciscans are really health-savvy and technologically-savvy. So there is definitely a percentage of the population that were ready for vaccine and got vaccinated.

MCCLURG: Regional attitudes may also be at play.

JULIE PARSONNET: The Bay Area tends to be much more socially engaged, where they think about the common good a little bit more.

MCCLURG: Julie Parsonnet is an epidemiologist at Stanford University.

PARSONNET: There are parts of the country where independence and freethinking are more important than community thought and community participation.

MCCLURG: Parsonnet says leftover fear from early on is also a motivation. Parts of the Bay Area were hit hard.

PARSONNET: I think a lot of us know somebody who got sick, and a lot of us know people who died. And I think there's nothing like that to help push us forward.

MCCLURG: Many of the same variables are at play in Seattle, the other city with the nation's highest vaccine rates. The demographics, public health departments and health care systems are all similar. And it's probably not a coincidence that both places had among the earliest COVID cases last year. Those lessons and losses are why Seattle's mayor, Jenny Durkan, is proud now.

JENNY DURKAN: For the first time since February 29 of last year, I feel like there really is hope on the horizon and light at the end of the tunnel. But we can't let our guard down either.

MCCLURG: She points to the delicate global situation.

DURKAN: We've seen how dangerous COVID is. You know, the U.K. now is talking about going backwards, not forwards, again because of the rise of the variant there.

MCCLURG: She also stresses the situation in China and India. The virus and its variants can spread on buses, trains and planes, meaning the global vaccination rate is much more important than any one city's numbers.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIRLPOOL SONG, "IDEAL WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.