California Faces Task of Equitably Vaccinating People With Limited Stockpile

Ken Towns receives a first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from UC Davis Health on Jan. 12, 2021, in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, Pool)

(CN) — California health officials told an advisory panel of experts Wednesday the state is wrestling with a low supply of Covid-19 vaccines and doesn’t expect the quantity of weekly deliveries from the federal government to increase for another month.

With the Golden State racing to put Covid-19 vaccines in people’s arms, officials have expanded eligibility for vaccinations and announced last week that people 65 and older can receive immunizations.

Across California, 1.5 million vaccine doses have been administered.

But vaccine rollout plans vary across the state and some counties — including Los Angeles County — are not receiving enough doses of the two available vaccines to fully vaccinate the expanded pool of eligible people.

LA County has received 685,000 doses to date and is still working to give more than 16,000 health workers their second dose of vaccine while only offering limited vaccination appointments for seniors.

Erica Pan, an epidemiologist with the California Department of Public Health told the Community Vaccine Advisory Committee in a virtual meeting Wednesday the state needs to double its supply of doses in order to meet its goals.

While more than 4.1 million vaccines have been shipped to local health departments and health providers, Pan said California will need closer to 9 million doses to vaccinate those who are currently eligible.

The state is receiving between 300,000 and a half million doses from the federal government each week and it’s unclear when more vaccines will be authorized for distribution.

“We may not get more vaccines for several weeks,” Pan said.

The committee is one of two public groups advising state officials on how to equitably distribute vaccines. 

California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris acknowledged to the group more must be done to clarify complicated messaging around vaccine eligibility.

“One of things we’re hearing loud and clear with challenges in vaccine rollout is the great need for simplicity and clarity,” Burke Harris said.

Officials displayed video clips and radio sound bites from the state’s media campaign aimed at increasing trust in the vaccines and clarifying where people can access doses.

Committee members said some health workers are showing up to vaccination appointments with their entire family because of confusion around distribution for households. 

When that happens, state officials should grant local health departments flexibility to vaccinate all family members, a committee member said.

CDPH director Tomás Aragón told members the state is working to bring online data systems that track who’s receiving vaccinations and is also determining how to partner with community-based health providers to deliver doses.

California is using a “healthy places index” (HPI) that analyzes communities’ pollution levels, housing affordability, education data and health care access to determine which areas are most vulnerable to Covid-19.

Pan told members the state’s “age-based” eligibility extension to people 65 and older centers on that population accounting for 83% of deaths from Covid-19 in California.

Pan added that the rollout of vaccines to this group could stretch into the summer months given the current supply of doses.

Many committee members said people who already struggle to access equitable care in the current health system, such as farmworkers and people with disabilities, should be granted earlier access to doses.

Jodi Hicks, CEO & president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, told the committee that current vaccine rollout shows people with family support or economic privilege can navigate distribution systems better than those who lack those resources.

“When you get to the lower tiers, my concern is they won’t have time and resources to be able to navigate,” Hicks said.

Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director of California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, said in the meeting individual counties should be allowed to supplement the HPI with details on other vulnerable populations that may not be flagged by the state.

“If we’re not careful, we might sacrifice equity for speed,” Savage-Sangwan said.

Savage-Sangwan previously told Courthouse News the state should consider moving from its sector-based approach to vaccine rollout to a “place-based” one, or a plan that brings vaccines to areas hit hardest by Covid-19.

Jeff Reynoso, director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California echoed support for a “place-based” approach to distribution that looks at a community’s overall vulnerability to Covid-19. 

Reynoso told the committee the pandemic has exposed a “sobering” reality for Latinos, who make up nearly 15,000 of California’s 35,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus.

“We’ve known for long that your zip code is a greater predictor of morbidity and mortality than your genetic code,” Reynoso said.

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