A Santa Cruz County farmworker, Ivan Ramirez, receives a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine shot by Physician Greg Whitley
A Santa Cruz County farmworker, Ivan Ramirez, receives a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from Physician Greg Whitley on Feb. 3, 2021, in Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Vaccine Watch

EXCLUSIVE: State says 30K vaccines given here as 8 Bay Area counties decry dearth of doses

The public health officers of eight Bay Area counties, including Santa Cruz County, say they are receiving only a fraction of the vaccines needed to vaccinate residents age 65 and older. At this pace, it could take weeks to vaccinate everyone in that age group, they say.

The public health chiefs of eight Bay Area counties, including Santa Cruz County, decried the scarcity of COVID-19 vaccines in a joint statement Wednesday, just hours after California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a federal partnership that would create a mass vaccination site at the Oakland Coliseum but offered few details about how it would operate.

Meanwhile, state officials appear to have finally delivered on their promise of a statewide vaccine dashboard — one that shows that slightly more than 30,000 vaccine doses have been distributed throughout Santa Cruz County.

To put that in perspective, there are about 15,000 health care workers, first responders, pharmacists and others who are first line to be vaccinated countywide, followed by about 44,000 people 65 and older. Since each person needs two doses of the vaccine, that means roughly 118,000 doses would be needed to vaccinate just the people in those groups.

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State officials launched their countywide vaccine database with little fanfare on Jan. 29; as of Tuesday, it showed 30,670 doses given out countywide. That’s only enough doses to fully innoculate about a quarter of high-risk workers here, along with those 65 and older.

In their joint statement, Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel and her counterparts in Marin, Napa, Solano, San Francisco, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties wrote that “the scarcity of COVID-19 vaccination doses throughout the San Francisco Bay Area has led health officials in eight jurisdictions to urge all health systems to prioritize shots for patients aged 65 and older because of the virus’ high mortality rate within that group.”

Weekly dose allocations from the state have slowed compared to shipments in December and early January, resulting in “a widespread inability to make new appointments, and in some cases, can lead to cancellations of existing appointments,” the health officers also wrote.

At the current pace of supply, it would take “several weeks” to offer the first dose to all older adults who want to be vaccinated.

Notably, one of the few Bay Area counties to not be part of the statement was Alameda County, where the mass vaccination site that Newsom announced is set to open on Feb. 16. While the Oakland site would not have residency restrictions on who can go get vaccinated there, a state health official told Lookout that Santa Cruz County residents would likely not be able to register to get vaccinated in Oakland as the state’s MyTurn website has geographical limitations.

Vaccine distribution in California is being conducted in a four-pronged approach, with county public health departments being one recipient.

Along with the counties, CDPH is allocating a large number of vaccines to major health systems (called multi-county entities). In Santa Cruz County, those include Kaiser Permanente, Sutter/PAMF and Dignity Health. The state also is assigning vaccines to smaller, independent medical providers.

Meanwhile, the fourth prong of distribution, the federal pharmacy partnership in charge of inoculating nursing home residents, receives its vaccine allocation from the federal government.

So far, the Santa Cruz County Public Health Department reports having received nearly 22,500 doses of vaccine and have distributed little over 11,000 of them. That’s because the county is required to reserve half the vaccine allocation to provide a second dose as both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses to be effective, administered weeks apart.

According to the state officials, the number includes doses administered by the major health systems, independent providers, the county health department and by the federal pharmacy program that’s serving nursing home residents.

In Santa Cruz County, there are an estimated 15,700 people over the age of 75 and another 27,300 people between the ages of 65 and 74, according to a vaccine allocation tool designed to help local governments plan vaccine distribution.

Newel was one of two health officers quoted directly in the statement from the eight Bay Area county health departments. “The demand for vaccine is high, which is good for the long-term health of our community, but the expectation that vaccines will be provided right now far outweighs the number of doses we’ve been given,” she said. “The infrastructure for giving the vaccine is ready. We just need the supply.”

The officers said the Bay Area is receiving “only a small fraction of the vaccines needed to vaccinate residents aged 65 and older, much less the broader occupation-based groups the state has included in Phase 1B Tier 1, including educators, food and agricultural workers, and emergency services personnel.”

“A vaccine offered to a resident above age 75 is 300 times more likely to save a life than a vaccine offered to someone under the age of 50,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Public Health Officer for Marin County, which has the highest per capita older population than any other county in the state.

To bolster their case that more vaccine is needed — and that the vaccines should be administered first to older adults, health officers shared some staggering statistics about the proportion of people over the age of 65 who have died from COVID-`19.

Of the eight counties, the lowest percentage of deaths among older adults was 78% in Solano County.

Santa Cruz County ranks second-highest with 90% of all COVID-19 deaths attributed older adults. So far, 149 people have died of COVID-19 in Santa Cruz County. Of those, 143 were 60 and older.

Since the major health systems are receiving a separate, oftentimes larger allocation of vaccine doses than the counties, health officers said they are able to vaccinate people “further down the prioritization list.”

However, Lookout reported Tuesday that the three major health systems in the county are also scrambling to set realistic expectations amid unreliable supply.

Each health system is operating at a different pace, based on vaccine supply:

  • Dignity Health Medical Group-Dominican: The system says they are offering vaccines to any patients 65 and older. Wednesday afternoon, the hospital also conducted a mass vaccination clinic for farmworkers in Watsonville.
  • Sutter/PAMF: Late Tuesday afternoon, the system issued a statement to news media, including Lookout, stating that, “at present,” vaccine “appointments are available for Sutter patients who are 75 years old or older” along with “community health care workers,” and that “at this time vaccine supply remains limited.” However, in a separate email to patients, Sutter wrote that “we anticipate opening vaccination to patients who are age 65 and older later this week. . . . We’re doing everything we can to meet demand, but we expect wait times on our phone scheduling line will remain high.”
  • Kaiser Permanente: This healthcare system says it is only vaccinating people over the age of 75 at present. However, Tuesday night, a Kaiser spokesperson told Lookout that “vaccine supply is limited and unpredictable at this time.” Meanwhile, earlier this week, the LA Times reported that Kaiser Permanente, which also serves Santa Cruz County residents, was forced to cancel COVID-19 vaccine appointments for thousands of seniors in the Bay Area, as the supply they received from state officials did not match their expectations.

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