California Counties Chart Vaccine Path Alone as State Leadership Falters

With the feds’ warning states to “use or lose” Covid-19 vaccines, California counties are skipping ahead of Newsom as experts question whether the state is prepared to hand out doses to its 40 million residents.

Vehicles queue up outside the Disneyland Resort parking for a Covid-19 vaccine in Anaheim, Calif., Wednesday. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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.”

After weeks of trying it the state’s way, several counties have begun charting their own path in deciding who can get the potentially life-saving vaccine. 

Fed up with the slow pace, the city of Los Angeles unveiled plans this week to transform its wildly successful Dodger Stadium Covid-19 testing site into a mass vaccination operation. In a release that credits only county leaders and the Dodgers, Mayor Eric Garcetti said the site will be operable by Friday and capable of administering 12,000 vaccines per day.

“Vaccines are the surest route to defeating this virus and charting a course to recovery, so the city, county, and our entire team are putting our best resources on the field to get Angelenos vaccinated as quickly, safely, and efficiently as possible,” Garcetti said.

On top of the Dodger Stadium project, Los Angeles County says it will have nearly 100 vaccination sites opened by the end of the week.

In neighboring Orange County, public officials have set up a similar vaccination site at Disneyland. They’ve also bumped residents over the age of 65 up on the priority list. County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau said Tuesday the decision was reached after polling of local hospitals found that deaths among older residents spiked considerably in November and that hospitalizations are rising highest among the age range.

Hospitals in the state’s capital have also started issuing doses to the general public over the age of 75.

In response to the criticism, Newsom’s public health department recently gave the greenlight for the National Guard, pharmacists and dentists to begin administering shots. Newsom meanwhile has also started pressing the Legislature to divvy up another $370 million to the effort, acknowledging the current plan was deficient.

“We recognize that the current strategy is not going to get us to where we need to go as quickly as we all need to go,” Newsom acknowledged earlier this week.

State Senator Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, backed Newsom’s argument the root of the problem lies with the Trump administration. Pan, a pediatrician who has carried several vaccine-related measures in recent years, said it’s been difficult for counties to plan ahead as the feds have routinely underdelivered or missed delivery deadlines.

If the planned mass-vaccination sites are to be a success, Pan says the state must improve distribution capabilities and provide counties with better infrastructure, such as a horde of freezers to store doses.

Pan also says lawmakers should take up Newsom’s emergency request for nearly $400 million quickly.

“Folks working on the distribution side should know the governor has their back and we’re going to make this a high priority,” Pan said.

But a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent Newsom a letter Wednesday, urging better communication with counties regarding how many vaccine doses they can expect so they can plan accordingly. They also asked the governor to reassure counties that either with federal or state funds, their vaccination efforts will be reimbursed.

Besides of the need to use doses before they expire, state officials have new incentive to empty freezers and get shots into Californians more quickly.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday told states to start vaccinating everyone over 65 and said in two weeks it would significantly change how it allocates future shipments to states. HHS Secretary Alex Azar said “micro-management” by governors has slowed the process and that the feds would start divvying out supplies based on usage and not population.

Vaccine distribution is up to each state, but they must request doses each week from the federal government. States learn what’s available each Tuesday, and order shipments on Thursday to be delivered the following Monday. 

It’s up to state governments precisely where vaccine shipments are sent, but once the vaccine arrives in a state, it has to be dispatched to hospitals, pharmacies or community centers for distribution. 

Newsom announced Wednesday that beginning next week, all Californians 65 and older can start receiving the vaccines. But the feds’ decision seemingly swings responsibility back to the states, the overarching test looming for Newsom will be how the shift from vaccinating health care workers and seniors to the rest of the state is executed, says Wesley Hussey, associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento.

“I can imagine if the concentrated, well thought out distribution is not doing so well, it’s going to be utter chaos once it goes to the general population, Hussey said, noting officials have been planning for the initial rollout for months. “We’re such a huge state, it’s going to be a real problem.”

Though Hussey believes the Trump administration’s vaccine rollout has been problematic as it has underdelivered on supplies and logistical support for states, he says the buck ultimately stops with Newsom. When providers and counties make mistakes in the coming weeks and months, “People are still going to blame the governor and the state,” Hussey said.

According to the CDC, as of Wednesday California had administered just 24% of the 3.2 million doses it has received.

While Senator Pan applauded the recent announcements and changes made by the Newsom administration on the vaccine front, the updated numbers are a stark reminder of the work ahead.

“We need to do a better job trying to figure out how to move the vaccines we’ve got into peoples’ arms,” Pan said.  

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