Educators, childcare workers, food and farm workers and first responders joined Californians aged 65 and over this week to qualify for the coronavirus vaccine.
After that large group is vaccinated, the next priority group will be based on age — and middle-age Californians are likely to be next in line.
This new statewide schedule takes effect mid-February and will apply to all 58 counties in an effort to accelerate California’s low vaccination rate. It’s unclear how long it will take to vaccinate this new group, but the announcement dovetails with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s effort to reopen schools and small businesses.
California’s leaders hope the new system will simplify a confusing and chaotic county-by-county vaccine rollout that has deeply frustrated millions of Californians vying for still-scant supplies.
Counties will “move in unison,” according to state officials, and have much less leeway than they did to set eligibility criteria. Right now, some counties, including San Diego, allow people 65 and older to be vaccinated, while others still restrict it to those 75 or older.
More than 2.5 million people in California have been vaccinated in the past seven weeks, and about 125,000 now are receiving doses each day, the state’s top health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said at a briefing. About 6.2 million people in California are 65 or older.
“At this moment of scarcity, we need to make sure vaccine is not just used to get to herd immunity, but to ensure that our most vulnerable” people are protected from severe COVID-19 illness, hospitalization or even death, Ghaly said.
Federal officials told the nation’s governors this week that they can expect about a 16% rise in their weekly allotments over the next three weeks. But state and county health officials still cannot plan more than a week ahead for how many doses they’ll be able to administer, Yolanda Richardson, secretary of the Government Operations Agency, said at the briefing.
As of Friday, San Diego County had received 497,600 vaccine doses and given 240,100 shots. Some 48,200 people have now been fully vaccinated with two doses. The county’s population totals 3.4 million.
California’s new system emphasizes age rather than people with chronic medical conditions that make them vulnerable to severe effects of COVID-19. As a result, someone younger than 65 with a condition such as diabetes, heart disease, an organ transplant, or cancer will not be prioritized for weeks, even months.
“I am 22, disabled, and immunocompromised. Because of the pandemic, I no longer have access to regular medical care, and COVID-19 could kill me if I got it,” Stanford University student Ariela Algaze wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “Gavin Newsom just sent me to the back of the line to get vaccinated.”
The standards upend months of careful planning by a working group of experts convened by state health officials to develop statewide eligibility rules for counties. The group sought to develop a distribution order that balanced competing aims: vaccinating as many people as possible as quickly as possible, keeping society functioning by protecting essential workers first and assuring fairness in distribution.
“In a well-meaning effort to achieve equity, we are creating systems so complex and messy that they can thwart the goal of equity. Simpler is better,” said Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at University of California, San Francisco, who has advocated for a vaccine eligibility system based on age. “People at the highest risk of dying should come first.”
Some health advocates worry that vaccine doses won’t go first to the people most at risk of contracting COVID-19 — primarily lower-income Latino and Black Californians — but rather to the wealthy and powerful.
Ghaly said that the state would continue to focus on equity issues to make sure vaccine gets to the communities “ravaged” by COVID-19. But there were few details about what that means in practice.
The state’s vaccine working group early on had proposed allocating vaccine doses first to communities scoring low on the state’s Healthy Places Index, which evaluates income, insurance coverage, education, pollution, density and other factors affecting residents’ health. After Newsom announced that people 65 and older were eligible, however, the group suggested that only 20 percent of doses go to those low-scoring communities, with the remaining vaccine earmarked depending only on age.
The advocates’ concerns appear to be warranted: Racial disparities in vaccination rates have emerged nationwide, although it’s impossible to tell whether such disparities are occurring in California. The state has not publicly released vaccination rates by county, race or age, although it is required to report that data to the federal government.
Variety, an entertainment trade publication, reported that Hollywood elites have jetted to Florida where eligibility criteria are less strict, or sought vaccinations from pricey “concierge” doctors. In the California desert city of Rancho Mirage, Eisenhower Medical Center invited wealthy donors — albeit over 65 — to be vaccinated at a “test clinic” not open to the public, the Desert Sun reported.
The new eligibility guidelines came after Newsom ended the virtually statewide stay-at-home order and returned to the color-coded county reopening system launched last summer.
Outdoor dining, outdoor gym workouts, hotels and haircuts have resumed operations in some counties, including San Diego, depending on the orders issued by local public health officers. The announcement took many business owners — and state lawmakers — by surprise.
For weeks, Newsom and other state officials have drawn withering criticism for a chaotic vaccine rollout in which they largely deferred logistics and eligibility decisions to counties.
Californians spent hours fruitlessly navigating online registration and notification systems managed by county and city governments, hospitals and even supermarkets — only to find there were no vaccine appointments available. Some online platforms have buckled under the strain, going dark for hours at a time.
Earlier this month, state officials quietly launched a statewide vaccine registration website called MyTurn (myturn.ca.gov) allowing Californians to sign up to be notified when they are eligible for vaccination, and in some cases, register for an appointment. For now, the site is in pilot mode. While residents in some counties now can register to be notified of their turn, the site only allows appointment sign-ups in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
“The biggest problem we have is lack of supply. That has highlighted all the flaws in delivering the vaccine,” said Leah Russin, co-founder of the advocacy group Vaccinate California. “We have consistently overpromised and under-delivered, and we should be doing the opposite.”
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