LA County’s vaccine mission keeps getting more complex
Los Angeles County’s mission to vaccinate roughly 8 million adults continues to get whole lot more complicated — and few of the solutions are worked out.
Meanwhile, L.A. County could surpass 20,000 deaths over the weekend. On Friday, the county reported 150 new deaths and 2,459 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of deaths to 19,662 deaths and positive cases to 1,176,772. Currently hospitalized with COVID-19 were 2,498 people, another significant decline.
Bracing for the mammoth vaccination challenge, the city of Los Angeles bulked up its infrastructure of sprawling clinics by opening a sixth mass inoculation site at Pierce College in Woodland Hills on Friday, Feb. 19. It’s the second-largest mega pod only in the region, behind Dodger Stadium.
The enduring problem: Because of continually thin, sporadically arriving supplies, the parking-lot vaccine complexes cannot generally operate at full capacity.
Witness to the issue: Appointments at five L.A. city-run sites were again postponed on Saturday due to severe weather conditions that snarled vaccine shipments headed West, according to Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“Notifications will be sent by text, email or phone as soon as we confirm the arrival of new doses,” Garcetti said by Twitter on Friday.
Beginning March 1, teachers — along with public safety and emergency service personnel and childcare workers — will be eligible to receive coronavirus vaccines. That’s more than 1.4 million people added to the county’s eligibility rolls.
The plan for how exactly to inoculate them all has yet to be fully realized, however, with most of the heavy lifting falling on the county Office of Education.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday said the state would earmark 10% of vaccine doses for teachers starting next month. That’s a measure L.A. County should be able to meet, according to Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the county Department of Public Health.
“We’re in the final stages of planning, working with LACOE, and they are working with various school districts,” Simon said. “We’re going to give a lot of latitude to them about how best to roll out vaccinations in their workforce.”
More details on the plan should surface next week, Simon said.
Another unknown surrounds exactly what the provider network will look like — newly helmed by Blue Shield of California — when the giant insurer takes over statewide vaccine distribution in several weeks. On the front end, the system will appear the same, officials say, with all appointments funneled through the state’s MyTurn.Ca.Gov.
L.A. and San Diego counties for the past three weeks have been engaged in a pilot program, using the statewide appointment system. It went live to all counties statewide this week.
L.A. County officials plan to meet next week with leaders of the upcoming effort with Blue Shield to stress how important it was to utilize the county’s existing network of vaccine providers, which now totals close to 400 locations.
“We think it’s critically important because it really doesn’t matter how many providers you have in different locations if you can’t be sure those who live in those underserved communities can access the services nearby,” Simon said.
Officials were still alarmed at growing inequities in vaccine distribution that statistically appear to favor White and more affluent even at vaccination sites located in underserved communities. One of the problems, according to Simon and others, is that the appointment system has no way to verify a user lives in the local area. That was an issue officials planned to bring up with Blue Shield, Simon said.
As of Feb. 14, roughly 42% of White residents 65 and older had received at least one dose of vaccine while 29% of Latinos and 24% of Blacks received the vaccine.
County officials planned to address disparities in vaccine access in a number of ways — including prioritizing certain doses for local residents, expanding mobile vaccine units, offering more transportation services, and increasing outreach in the community, according to Simon.
“I think it reflects deep-rooted inequities in health services,” Simon said. “The biggest barrier has simply been the registration process, trying to identify a slot and get an appointment. Because of the scarcity of vaccine and the great demand, it’s difficult to use the website.”
For those without internet access or without help using it, there is a hotline at 833-540-0473, but long wait times have plagued the system, as well as callers’ patience.
Severe weather across much of the United States, which delayed thousands of appointments on Friday at city of L.A. vaccination sites, appeared to be letting up on Friday, meaning further delays were not expected. County sites were unaffected, Simon said, because they use the Pfizer vaccine. The city sites rely on the Moderna vaccine, which was the most impacted by shipping delays.
As of Friday, L.A. County had vaccinated more than 1.67 million people including 471,162 who received two doses. Roughly 15.5% of residents over 16 years old have now received at least one dose. Last week the county received 262,925 doses, the largest shipment yet, though authorities were still only provided one-week horizon for future allocations, Simon said.
When it comes to whether teachers should be required to return to the classroom before they have access to a vaccine, Simon was hesitant to wade in saying there were good arguments for teachers to be cautious. But at the same time, officials believe at current transmission levels, grade schools can open safely.
“While I can’t quantify precisely, we do know that the risk at schools goes down as community transmission around the schools go down,” Simon said.