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SALT LAKE CITY — The vibrant coats of children could be seen leaving Rose Park Elementary School, some coats being carried away on bikes or nestled in the backseats of parents' cars, as the sun shone high at a warm 79 degrees Wednesday.
A pair of children pulled a red toy wagon with several grocery bags of food, a new pair of shoes and two bright orange and blue coats nestled on top as they walked home. The scene was a part of a community partnership between the Salt Lake Education Foundation in the Salt Lake City School District, Salt Lake County Health Department, Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City mayors' offices and the nonprofit Operation Warm.
"Our Rose Park is one of the highly impacted areas in our community. We were concerned about making sure that families have access to the vaccine in this neighborhood. A lot of them don't speak English, there are multiple languages, different cultures, backgrounds. And so because COVID hit this community pretty hard we want to make sure that we give this opportunity," said James Yapias, Salt Lake Education Foundation and Development Office director.
A study conducted by University of Utah researchers found that low-income neighborhoods in Salt Lake County — such as Rose Park and Glendale — have been more adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic, experiencing nearly 10 times the COVID-19 incidence rates of affluent areas. One of the researchers, Daniel Mendoza, said that the disparities related to cultural and racial backgrounds as well as access to health care.
"That is, lower-income, more at-risk occupational career people tend to also be in areas that have homes which are larger in terms of population — they are multigenerational families," Mendoza said.
Mendoza also pointed to insufficient testing sites and language barriers for these communities at the start of the pandemic, adding that it later was noticed and corrected by health departments.
The event was representative of that. Free COVID-19 testing, along with vaccination sites for eligible children and adults were set up, with cars slowly trickling through. Signs were posted across the parking lot in both English and Spanish, as well as individuals within the different partnerships who could communicate across different languages. Rose Park Elementary School also is home to the Rose Park Clinic, which helps the neighborhood have access to regular health care outside of COVID-19.
"The best way to protect families right now is getting vaccinated and for kids that can't be vaccinated, older siblings should do it, and also just wearing masks. This is an important initiative to make sure westside communities have access to the vaccine but also are safe throughout the winter," said Hailey Leek, community outreach special projects and equity coordinator for the Salt Lake City Mayor's Office.
That's where Operation Warm came in.
"We're in 84116, this is the Rose Park area. It also coincides with the greatest number of unvaccinated people in the city and so we wanted to put on an event where people would have the choice to get vaccinated for 12 years and up," said Michael Andrews, Intermountain West partnerships manager for Operation Warm. "But we also know that many of the individual families in this country do live in poverty and so we wanted to offer brand new shoes, coats, as well as the food."
Operation Warm is a national nonprofit that works with community partners to provide children with brand new shoes and winter coats. The coats and shoes are manufactured by Operation Warm through donations and business partners. Operation Warm works with community partners that are centered on supporting children and families in need or in Title 1 schools where 40% or more of their students' families are at or below 150%.
The amount of people in need has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrews said.
"Now more than ever these coats and shoes are very important to these communities because families faced with having to pay a light bill, a gas bill, food or transportation, one of the last things in that budget was shoes and coats for the kids," Andrews said.
He continued, "This is a community school. Most of these kids do walk to school. So we want to make sure that they're warm and that when they get to school, they're fed. We know that the data is clear when kids are well taken care of and they have warm winter clothing they tend to do better in school."