SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — True to the state’s reputation of complicating the launch of even the most pressing pieces of public policy, over a million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine sit unused as the pandemic rages to new deadly heights across California.
For months, experts and state officials touted a vaccine as the turning point in the pandemic fight and critical to finally reopening schools and businesses. With federal approval given to the first vaccine in mid-December, Governor Gavin Newsom assured Californians trudging through the deadliest month of the pandemic there was finally “light at the end of the tunnel” and that his various vaccine commissions had a satisfactory plan.
But as residents of the nation’s most populous state wrapped up a subdued holiday season, the dust settled and it became clear the hope birthed by the arrival of Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines was waning. The state’s ballyhooed vaccination plan was off to a slow and shaky start.
Instead of a state-led mass vaccination effort, Newsom and his advisers turned to private hospitals and local health departments already hamstrung by the pandemic to lead the way in scheduling and administering shots. The hands-off approach backfired, as even with a limited supply intended solely for health care workers and nursing home residents, box after box of the coveted vaccines stacked up.
Counties soon began reporting major backlogs while a chorus of doctors unaffiliated with major hospital networks complained of not being able to get supplies. The state’s goal of quickly immunizing health care workers went unmet as recent statistics reveal more than 70% of the state’s supply remains unused.
For his part the Democratic governor, who has likened the prospect of vaccinating 40 million Californians to a “military operation,” pinned most of the blame on the federal government, lack of funding and logistical hurdles. He’s complained of poor communication with the feds and a shoddy delivery scheme as major causes of the holdup.
Yet explanations for the delay given during his virtual press conferences have been outstripped by the fact California hasn’t come close to exhausting its supply as it is. The Golden State ranks 40th nationwide in terms of doses administered per 100,000 residents, trailing states like Texas, Florida and New York even though it has received the most doses.
With California now at the epicenter of the pandemic after a week which saw an average of 480 Covid-19 deaths per day, the lagging pace stands to reduce the state’s future federal allotments and stoke doubt over whether Newsom can manage the pending expansion of the vaccine beyond frontline workers.
“The criticism of Newsom is warranted, we’re really behind,” said Christian Grose, public policy and political science professor at the University of Southern California. “He seems to be responding to criticism more than planning ahead.”
During his first press conference of the year, Newsom pushed back on questions about the effectiveness of the vaccination strategy, saying the process was like a “flywheel” and beginning to build pace. At every opportunity he’s adamantly defended the plan developed by his 60-member vaccine working group but hasn’t given a clear timeline for when the state might move into the next vaccination stage.
Critics, counties and even some prominent California Democrats are losing patience with the red tape and overflowing freezers.
“You would think that with the vaccines now available, every elected official would be working 24/7 to get the shots into as many arms as possible, as quickly as possible. Why aren’t they?” asked former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown in a San Francisco Chronicle column. “It appears that the distribution plans, with their various ‘phases’ of who get the vaccine and when, are too complicated.”