California Will Expand Vaccine to Millions With Severe Disabilities

The state shifts its vaccine eligibility once again to cover people with conditions ranging from cancer to severe disabilities despite ongoing vaccine supply struggles.

Christie Aiello, left and Denise Gomez prepare the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for medical workers at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., Jan. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California will expand vaccine eligibility to an estimated 6 million residents under the age of 65 with severe disabilities and underlying conditions beginning next month, state officials announced Friday.  

Under the latest criteria from the California Department of Public Health, providers will be encouraged next month to “use their clinical judgment” while consulting a checklist of disabilities and serious health conditions. After more than two months of focusing on health care workers and seniors, the state wants to offer vaccines to another large swath of residents severely at risk of dying from Covid-19 starting March 15.

The notice sent to providers on Friday lists qualifying conditions such as cancer, down syndrome, heart conditions, severe obesity, pregnancy and people with severe developmental disabilities.

“We’re focused on saving lives, focused on promoting equity and we’re focusing on getting to the other side of the pandemic with vaccines,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly told reporters.

Ghaly said the decision could extend eligibility to an estimated 4-6 million Californians and that plans are being finalized to incorporate the new group next month. Under the scheme, disabled residents will be directed to smaller, more specialized clinics as opposed to some of the mass-vaccination centers that have sprouted throughout the state. 

While officials say the list of conditions is subject to change, providers at the specialized clinics will likely determine eligibility by accessing patients’ medical records.

California is currently allowing health care and frontline workers as well as individuals over 65 to receive the vaccine, a pool representing an estimated 13 million.

Asked about further delaying the vaccine to the high-risk cohort, Ghaly defended the decision saying the state was still hamstrung by a meager vaccine supply and that more time was needed to ensure the current group is vaccinated.

“We believe this planning period is appropriate and the bottom line is we’re still dealing very much with a scarcity of vaccine,” Ghaly said.

After weeks of being pressed by disability rights groups, California Governor Gavin Newsom promised the state would make a more concerted effort beginning in March.

“I want the disability community to know, we’ve heard you, and we’re going to do more and better to provide access, even with the scarcity,” Newsom said while touring a San Francisco vaccination site.

The announcement comes amid a continued stretch of improvement on the pandemic front.

Counties reported 10,000 new infections Friday, down from 36,000 one month ago. Hospitalizations have dropped nearly 35% over the last two weeks and the state’s positivity rate — a key indicator of community spread — has plummeted from 13.5% on Jan. 12 to 4.3% on Friday.

As for the overarching vaccination effort, Newsom says the state continues to see progress and has tripled its vaccination pace from a month ago. California counties have now administered 5.5 million doses and the state is averaging 200,000 daily inoculations.

But vaccinations have likely hit a plateau, with Newsom echoing Ghaly’s concern the federal government is not providing the nation’s most populous state with enough vaccines.

“It’s simple: the answer is, there are not enough vaccines coming to the state of California,” the Democratic governor said. “This is the issue that will become an even bigger issue.”

Citing a lack of fresh supply, many counties have begun reserving doses for patients needing their second round of the vaccine while a mass vaccination center at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles has also temporarily shut down. 

In Los Angeles County, roughly 1.3 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been put into people’s arms since the widescale vaccination program began last month. Over 1 million of those vaccines were first dose shots and less than 300,000 were for second doses, according to public health officials.

That puts LA in a precarious position as 13% of the county has received their first dose and just 4% have been fully vaccinated. Many of the vaccines set to arrive this week will go to fill that second-dose deficit.

The lag in available vaccines has hampered the full-scale response health officials in LA were hoping to mount.

“We’re all frustrated. We know we could do much more with available doses,” said LA County Chief Science officer Paul Simon during a press briefing on Friday. “We’re now receiving 200,000 doses each week. As we’ve surveyed all our providers, we’re confident that we could administer up to 600,000 doses a week. So we have much, much greater capacity if we could get the available vaccine.”

Newsom says the Biden administration is now providing states with a three-week outlook on vaccine allotments but that the totals are far from adequate. Next week California is slated to receive 1.2 million doses, a slight increase over the last few weeks.

To address concerns about unequal vaccine distribution, Newsom administration officials detailed a five step process providers are being given to ensure a more equitable process going forward.

For the first time on Friday, the state released information regarding the distribution of vaccine doses by race. Whites have received 32% of doses tracked so far, followed by Latinos (15.8%), “multi-race” (13.9%), Asian Americans (13.1%) and Blacks (2.8%).

According to the document, the state is creating a formula to determine where communities of color and those hardest hit by the virus have received a disproportionate vaccine share. The state and its third party administrator, Blue Shield of California, will then compensate providers for reaching the impacted communities.

The state also plans to spend $30 million to help community organizations on outreach programs and a public education campaign.

Newsom acknowledged the state hasn’t paid enough attention to underserved communities when it comes to the potentially life-saving vaccine.

“We’re going to incentivize good behavior, we’re going to pay for performance, and we’re going to encourage efficient distribution, administration and data collection,” Newsom promised.

While not the announcement most parents are looking for, the state on Friday did launch a new online map detailing where individual school districts are at in the reopening process.

The color-coded “Safe Schools Reopening Map” covers both public and private K-12 schools across the state and places districts in one of four categories: in-person, hybrid, distance learning only and no status available. Information on Covid-19 outbreaks, testing and enrollment will soon be incorporated to the map, Newsom said.

The first iteration shows that outside of various rural counties, campuses remain uniformly closed in major cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose.

Newsom, who claims he and the Legislature are on the brink of announcing a new comprehensive schools plan, said the new map is intended to boost transparency and help local officials with reopening decisions. After nearly a year of closures, Newsom said the state is preparing to give local officials more freedom to reopen.

“We need to get our schools reopened in the state of California for our youngest cohorts. We can do that safely. Our kindergarten students, our 1st- and 2nd graders first. We’ll get our 3rd- 4th- 5th- and 6th- graders in as a second cohort,” Newsom said. “We can do that as a state, working with the Legislature to support efforts at the local level.” 

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