State legislators call for more communication on Gov. Newsom’s vaccine plans

When the state in late January announced the rollout of a new website to register for COVID-19 vaccinations, it came as a surprise to some local health officials, who were still working out the bugs in their own scheduling systems and weren’t sure how the two would work together.

Likewise, the news that the state would partner with Blue Shield and Kaiser to speed up vaccine distribution was news to some state legislators, who were so frustrated they wrote to Gov. Gavin Newsom seeking answers.

“With no contracts available for review, the public is left in the dark with no idea of the cost to taxpayers, changes to the state’s relationship with county health departments, the nature of the provider network, or any related information technology costs,” said a press release from Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama.

Nielsen is the lead signatory on the Feb. 3 letter to Newsom, which was also signed by Republican senators Pat Bates of Laguna Niguel, Brian Dahle of Bieber, Melissa Melendez of Lake Elsinore, Rosilicie Ochoa-Bogh of Yucaipa and Scott Wilk of Santa Clarita.

The letter – echoing the vexation of some local officials – raised questions about how the third-party administrators would work with counties, how priorities are being set for who gets vaccinated and in what order, and what’s being done to ensure the MyTurn registration system doesn’t become an expensive flop.

Nielsen said Monday he’s heard nothing from Newsom. The press offices for the governor and the California Department of Public Health had not responded as of late Monday to reporters’ requests for comment.

Bates said in an interview Friday that the state’s confusing tier system for vaccine priorities may be one reason California lags other states in getting shots into people’s arms. It’s been difficult to get information, and legislators and local officials alike have been blindsided by some of Newsom’s decisions, she said.

“You don’t just jump into that and not let your (county) health agencies know what direction you’re taking,” Bates said of MyTurn. “The state is really at fault for this complicated process that they have.”

The partnership with Blue Shield and Kaiser was announced about two weeks ago as a way to better manage the tracking and distribution of vaccines, which officials acknowledge are still in short supply. Involving the two health care providers will also improve the focus on disparately affected communities, officials said in announcing the partnership.

MyTurn is being tested to schedule vaccinations in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, but it’s not yet in use statewide.

Newsom’s office has also announced it would standardize movement through the tiers of eligibility across the state going forward. The changes being rolled out are in response to lessons learned from a push at the time to ramp up vaccinations, they said.

“To reach the pace needed to vaccinate all Californians in a timely manner, we are simplifying and standardizing the process statewide,” Newsom said at the time.

The state health department on Monday reported 4,746,539 vaccine doses have been given statewide.

Local health departments have so far been largely responsible for standing up large-scale vaccination sites like the ones at Dodger Stadium and Disneyland, getting doses out to smaller health providers and reaching out to populations with greater health risks or higher infection rates.

“It’s like every day there’s something else new that doesn’t integrate with what folks are already doing. The big issue is getting vaccine supply, not creating new rules and platforms,” said Lucy Dunn, who heads the Orange County Business Council and is on the county health agency’s advisory vaccine task force.

Dunn is concerned about getting accurate, thorough data from the state on who’s being vaccinated so the county can focus on underserved and vulnerable communities, which the state has asked local officials to do.

While Dunn said she’s trying to cut state officials some slack because they’re working with systems that just weeks ago didn’t exist, Bates said they should be open about it when things don’t go as planned.

Communication and transparency have been lacking, and “it just really needs to be corrected,” Bates said. “Not knowing is where all of the aggravation and the animosity develops.”

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