In-class learning
A special education pre-K class that at the Lu Sutton Elementary school campus in Novato.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
COVID 2022

Next in line for California’s COVID-19 vaccine? Teachers and first responders, panel says

California’s first responders, farmworkers and educators would be among those next in line to be vaccinated against COVID-19 under recommendations that a state advisory committee discussed this week.

Should that guidance eventually be put into effect, those workers — as well as others in the broadly defined fields of education and childcare, emergency services, and food and agriculture — would be prioritized within the second major stage of the state’s wider vaccination push.

Roughly 5.9 million Californians work in those sectors.

Though California’s vaccine rollout plans continue to be defined, Wednesday’s meeting of the state Community Vaccine Advisory Committee provided a window into how the process may play out in the weeks to come.

The state’s initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are earmarked for front-line healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes. After that, officials have said essential workers come next.

As was noted during Wednesday’s committee meeting, though, the classification of “essential workers” is expansive — encompassing almost 12 million Californians, roughly two-thirds of the state’s entire workforce, in 13 wide-ranging fields.

“So two-thirds of us are essential. That’s nice to know,” said Dr. Oliver Brooks, co-chairman of the state work group that’s developing guidance on vaccine distribution.

The recommendations presented Wednesday would prioritize workers in some of the following fields:

  • Education and childcare: Childcare workers, preschools, elementary and secondary school personnel, community colleges, colleges and universities, and trade schools.
  • Emergency services: Nonmedical first responders, law enforcement, firefighters, child and youth services, shelters, nonresidential social services for the elderly and people with disabilities, and justice and safety activities.
  • Food and agriculture: Agricultural workers; animal/seafood/bakeries/food manufacturing and slaughtering/processing; fruit, vegetable, dairy and special foods manufacturing; grocery stores/food markets; food and drinking establishments; pharmacies/drugstores; warehouse clubs; community food services; nurseries/florists; and sawmills.

State officials have previously said that California’s first allocation of the recently approved Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would total about 327,000 doses. Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week that the state expects to receive 393,900 more doses on top of that, as well as potentially 672,000 additional doses of another vaccine from Moderna, should that receive U.S. authorization, as expected.

However, Newsom’s office confirmed Thursday that the next shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will be more in the neighborhood of 233,000 doses, significantly lower than initially thought.

Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for Newsom’s office, wrote in an email that the original projection “was based on what the federal government had communicated to us” and that “the federal government delayed the number of Pfizer vaccines that California will receive in the next shipment — many states received new estimated shipment amounts.”

That many doses is a drop in the bucket in a state the size of California.

Though the state expects to receive millions more doses by early next year, and additional vaccines in development could further expand availability, officials face difficult choices about which Californians should be protected next against COVID-19.

“We’ll be grappling with trying to determine criteria that can be used practically and efficiently to sort between worthy recipients of scarce vaccine, whether that’s using age or medical conditions or other factors to be able to give providers and the public and the workers clarity as to ... what are some practical tools that can be used to be able to let the highest risk or those at priority go first,” said Dr. Robert Schechter, the other co-chairman of California’s Drafting Guidelines Workgroup.

Different groups ranging from waste workers to meatpackers to the ride-hailing company Uber are already jockeying to secure early position in the vaccination line.

Debra Duardo, superintendent for the L.A. County Office of Education, sent a letter to the governor Wednesday calling for teachers to be a high priority.

“School closures have had a negative impact on our children, particularly those from lower-income families. As you have stated,” Duardo wrote, referring to Newsom, “reopening schools is also a crucial first step in an economic recovery.”

Most public school campuses remain closed in L.A. County. In a poll of more than 500 Los Angeles teachers released Wednesday, 36% rated a widely available vaccine as “critically important” to feeling comfortable in returning to the classroom.

Along with determining how best to order future vaccines, however, an ongoing challenge will be confirming that people work in specified fields or meet other criteria, as well as screening those attempting to game the system.

“There’s a social solidarity here that we all say, ‘Yes, the healthcare workers go first,’” Anthony Wright, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Health Access, said during Wednesday’s committee meeting. “But once people think that other people are sort of cutting the line, that dissolves the social compact that we’re all in, and I’m really scared about that.”

Conversations about the vaccine rollout all point to the same hopeful future: a time when California, along with the rest of the world, can finally declare victory over the coronavirus pandemic. Such long-view optimism, however, is tempered by near-term devastation.

More Californians are becoming infected with, hospitalized by and dying from the coronavirus than at any other point in the outbreak — and officials warn that those figures are likely to get worse before they get better.

Single-day pandemic records were shattered across the state again Wednesday, with 51,724 new coronavirus cases and 393 additional deaths reported.

California is now tallying an average of 203 COVID-19 deaths a day over a weekly period, and 35,200 cases a day — both records, and both quadruple the numbers from mid-November, according to data compiled by The Times.

More than 21,800 Californians have died from COVID-19 throughout the pandemic, and almost 1.67 million have been infected.

The enormous wave of infections comes as hospitals are already inundated with record numbers of coronavirus-positive patients.

On Tuesday, the most recent data available, 14,939 people across the state were in the hospital with coronavirus infections — more than six times the number on Halloween — and a record 3,188 of them were in intensive care.

Officials are now describing the state of California’s healthcare system in increasingly dire terms, saying the long-held fear of overwhelmed hospitals and overtaxed staff is now closer to reality than ever.

“There are simply not enough trained staff to care for the volume of patients that are projected to come and need care,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, Los Angeles County’s director of health services. “Our hospitals are under siege, and our model shows no end in sight.”

Because of the lagging nature of the coronavirus, it can take two to three weeks for spikes in cases to trigger a corresponding increase in hospitalizations. When that happens, though, the consequences can be sudden and severe. State officials have previously estimated that 12% of newly diagnosed coronavirus cases are likely to require hospitalization, with 12% of those eventually ending up in the ICU.

The most recent record-high hospitalizations do not account for the sky-high numbers of new infections, a chilling prospect for the state’s stretched-thin hospitals and healthcare workers.

On Thursday, that fear became reality when ICU bed availability reached 0.0% in Southern California — a sprawling region the state defines as Imperial, Inyo, Los Angeles, Mono, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, state figures show.

The day before, ICU availability again tumbled to zero in the San Joaquin Valley, though it bounced back to 0.7% on Thursday.

“If the numbers continue to increase the way they have, I am afraid that we may run out of capacity within our hospitals,” said Dr. Denise Whitfield, associate medical director with the L.A. County emergency medical services agency and an emergency room physician at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance.

Times staff writers Sean Greene and Howard Blume and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.