March 4, 2021

Some older Californians get COVID vaccine; others strike out

It was a weekend of frustration and confusion for many Californians 65 and older who tried to figure out how to get the coronavirus vaccine.

The state announced last week that it was opening up vaccinations to older people. But it soon became clear that, in many counties, those shots were going to be in short supply in part because there were still many medical workers and first responders in line ahead of them.

Some people 65 and older did get vaccinated at retail stores that had supplies available. But many others could not find a location offering appointments.

Here’s how matters stand across Southern California:

Los Angeles County

The county Department of Public Health on Saturday issued a broad call for licensed healthcare workers — including medical doctors, doctors of osteopathy, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, licensed vocational nurses, dentists and pharmacists — to volunteer to vaccinate other healthcare workers during unpaid 10-hour shifts at five “mega” distribution sites.

The sites are slated to open Tuesday at the Pomona Fairplex, the Forum in Inglewood, Cal State Northridge, the L.A. County Office of Education in Downey and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, with appointments available each day through Feb. 14, the county said.

In addition, the city of L.A.’s Dodger Stadium vaccine site started administering doses Friday.

As of Thursday, healthcare workers in L.A. County had received more than 279,000 doses of vaccine, including over 219,000 first doses and more than 60,000 second doses, officials said, but they estimated that roughly 450,000 healthcare workers still needed to be vaccinated.

County public health officials have said they expect that all eligible healthcare workers will receive their first dose in the next two weeks, and that they’ll be able to move on to the next phase of vaccinations in early February. Those eligible in the next phase include people 65 and older, as well as those who work in education, child care, emergency services, or food and agriculture and face risk of exposure.

Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer in L.A. County, said during a media briefing Friday that staff at the five mass vaccine sites launching in the county would be trained to follow the flow of traffic at the site and open only the necessary number of vials.

Each vial holds about five or six vaccine doses. Once opened, the use-it-or-lose-it time frame narrows to about six hours.

In the event there is a vaccine surplus, Simon said that staff was being instructed to reach out within local communities to first offer the doses to the most vulnerable.

“We want to prioritize those higher-risk groups,” he said.

The leftover vaccine may also be administered to site volunteers or others within the community to make use of all doses.

“No vaccines are being thrown out,” Simon said. “There have been isolated reports of some vaccines being lost at the end of the day. … That’s tragic. We don’t want that to happen. We have protocols in place to try to prevent that. But certainly mass quantities of vaccine are not being lost.”

Long Beach, which has its own public health department, moved onto the next phase of vaccinations Friday, with Mayor Robert Garcia and other critical city employees receiving the vaccine. Others who are newly eligible included police officers and those 65 and older.

And this weekend, some older adults were vaccinated in Long Beach.

That came after the city vaccinated roughly 15,000 healthcare workers and residents of long-term-care facilities, Garcia said in a news release.

This week, Long Beach will open clinics to vaccinate grocery workers and has scheduled clinics to vaccinate educators the following week, the release said.

Orange County

Orange County has opened up vaccinations to residents 65 and older and first responders working in high-risk communities, as well as healthcare workers.

The county last week opened a large-scale vaccine distribution center at Disneyland and said it planned to eventually open four others. But the volume of people trying to get an appointment quickly overloaded the system, County Supervisor Andrew Do said last week. He encouraged people to keep trying.

The vaccination site, along with two smaller ones, earlier in the week were overwhelmed by people who showed up without appointments, which led to them “effectively shutting down” for a time on Tuesday, the county said.

The platform for scheduling new appointments, Othena.com, was being updated regularly to address technical issues, said Jessica Good, public information manager for the county health department.

More than 256,000 people had registered through the site as of Saturday — an average of 12,000 registrations an hour — and over 30,000 of them had been vaccinated, she said. Good added that more appointments would become available as the county received more vaccine.

Orange County has about 450,000 residents who are 65 or older, plus 250,000 critical and healthcare workers and first responders, but has been allocated just 170,000 doses so far, Good said. Of those, 80% have gone to hospitals and large healthcare providers, she said.

Inland Empire

Other counties, including Riverside, also have begun to vaccinate those 65 or older and essential workers in certain sectors.

But there are reports that appointments have been difficult to obtain.

About 4 p.m. Wednesday, Riverside County opened 5,600 appointments for vaccination clinics taking place Thursday through Sunday at Corona High School, Heritage High School in Menifee, San Gorgonio Middle School in Beaumont, the Indio fairgrounds and Diamond Stadium in Lake Elsinore. The Diamond Stadium clinic was exclusively for people 65 or older.

All of the appointments were booked by 7 p.m., spokeswoman Brooke Federico said.

On Friday, the county made available 11,000 more appointments through Jan. 22, and the spots filled up in roughly two hours, she said.

On top of that, the county said it had received only enough vaccine from the state to cover the clinics operating through the weekend.

“As of right now, we have 14,346 doses in our hands as public health, and that is just enough to get through the vaccine clinics we have planned Sunday,” Kim Saruwatari, Riverside County public health director, said Friday at a livestreamed meeting with county officials. “And by the end of Sunday, we should be pretty close to out of vaccine as a public health department.”

An additional 100,479 doses have been either administered or sent to healthcare providers to be administered over the next few days, she said. By contrast, the county estimates that more than 700,000 residents are currently eligible to receive the vaccine.

Saruwatari said the county typically received weekly shipments from the state of about 35,000 to 40,000 doses, but the allotment is not exact or regular.

“And so that is one of the challenges that makes planning very difficult,” she said. “We don’t know when vaccine will be arriving with certainty, and we don’t know how much we’ll be getting at any given time with any level of certainty.”

San Diego County

Vaccine eligibility nearly doubled in San Diego County last week. Supply, on the other hand, did not.

The county has focused on vaccinating the 620,000 healthcare workers and nursing home residents who fall into the state’s highest-priority vaccination tier. New state and federal guidelines mean that nearly 500,000 San Diegans 65 or older are also eligible for a vaccine — assuming their healthcare provider has the doses.

That has led to considerable confusion. On Thursday, a Ralphs spokesperson told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the supermarket chain received the green light to vaccinate residents 65 and up at its pharmacies, and that those interested could sign up for appointments online.

Dr. Linh Lee, director of pharmacy, health and wellness at Ralphs, clarified on Friday that that was not accurate. Vaccination for older patients began on Wednesday and quickly halted.

“There’s a ton of confusion,” Lee said. “Patients don’t know what they should be doing.”

Healthcare systems are also struggling, with systems including Scripps, Sharp and Kaiser Permanente saying they don’t yet have enough vaccine to immunize patients.

UCSD Health, which inoculated 120 older patients Thursday, is also concerned about its supply. The health system has about 120,000 patients 65 or older, according to Dr. Marlene Millen, and often doesn’t know when it will receive vaccine and in what amount until a day or two ahead of time.

“It’d be nice to have a steady supply and make plans,” Millen said.

Jonathan Wosen of the San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.