LA County Sets Sights on Retired Nurses to Boost Vaccine Distribution

FILE – In this Dec. 14, 2020, file photo, California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds up a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

LOS ANGELES (CN) — With Covid-19 vaccine distribution going slower than expected in Los Angeles County, officials spoke Tuesday about whether the county could call on retired nurses and other former health care workers to help administer doses.

The Golden State has become the nation’s coronavirus epicenter in recent weeks, with an influx of people infected with Covid-19 overrunning hospitals and record-breaking numbers of cases reported daily.

In LA County, health officials estimate as many as 1 in 5 people have SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19, and have warned residents that any outdoor activity that was relatively safe two months ago is now high-risk.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 830,000 LA County residents have tested positive for the deadly virus and nearly 11,000 have died after contracting it. 

At a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, LA County Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said the county is in a “desperate situation” and that an anticipated surge in infections stemming from winter holiday gatherings will be reflected in reported data this week.

“People intermingled more than we asked them to,” Ferrer said of the recent holidays and related travel. “We need to reduce the number of people infected. We’re already in a desperate situation.”

For officials and residents alike, the ongoing distribution of the two available Covid-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna, respectively, has been a hopeful sign. 

As of Monday, nearly 460,000 vaccine doses have been administered statewide and more than 1.8 million doses have been shipped to health departments, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Distribution of the vaccines has been slower than planned with over 500,000 doses yet to be administered in California and millions more scheduled to be delivered.

Ferrer told supervisors vaccine rollout has been slow due to shortages in allocations from federal supplies and a limited number of personnel who cleared to administer doses.

The county has received about 363,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines but has only administered about 190,000 doses.

About 96,300 doses went to frontline health care workers at acute care hospitals and 22,200 were given to staff and residents at skilled nursing facilities as well as paramedics, according to county data released Monday.

LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn asked Ferrer whether the county could call on retired nurses to help distribute the vaccine. 

“It would be a good call to action for all retired health care workers,” Hahn said.

Ferrer agreed and also discussed her department’s plan to enlist celebrities and “influencers” in a media campaign promoting the vaccine and urging people to abide by health orders.

The next batch of nearly 93,000 Pfizer doses will be used this week as the second doses for the health care workers first vaccinated in mid-December.

Ferrer told the board the county expects to receive at least 50,700 Moderna doses this week that will be administered to home health workers and staff at urgent care and primary care clinics.

“A little bit of a wrinkle would be if we don’t get the allocations we need,” Ferrer said of the expected vaccine deliveries.

In response to the statewide lag, California Governor Gavin Newsom said his upcoming budget proposal will include a request for $300 million to support vaccine distribution. Dental offices, drug stores and the National Guard will be used to speed up the vaccination process, he said.

Last week, Hahn wrote to Newsom backing health workers’ request for the state to dispatch additional medical staff to support the region’s hospitals. The letter also called on the Trump administration to send the U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy back to LA County, where military medical staff can support hospitals that are overrun with Covid-19 patients.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger also wrote to Newsom Tuesday, saying that in response to the recent surge in cases, the state should send registered nurses and respiratory care practitioners from the National Guard to support hospitals in the county.

“All counties in this state are experiencing this same surge, which is why an injection of additional staff to the entire system from the National Guard is necessary,” Barger wrote in the letter.

Federal officials told the state the Mercy is undergoing mandatory maintenance and not available for deployment, according to Newsom’s Office of Emergency Services. To offset, the agency said in a statement Tuesday it has requested deployment of an additional 500 federal medical staff and disaster support personnel to provide aid to California hospitals and skilled nursing homes.

“Bringing additional medical staff into the state will allow us to save lives and ensure our hospitals’ systems are not overstretched,” Newsom said in the statement. “Now is the time to use every resource at our disposal to fight the spread of this virus and protect Californians.”

About 1,420 medical personnel have already been deployed to health care facilities statewide, including U.S. Army Corps of Engineers staff who are helping LA County hospitals repair oxygen delivery systems.

Ferrer told the board the more easily transmissible variants of Covid-19 found in the United Kingdom and South Africa have not yet been detected in the county, but she said the mutations are likely already present in the population.

“It doesn’t mean it’s not here,” Ferrer said of the variants. “We could easily have a virus that infects more people.”

LA County reported 13,512 new cases of Covid-19 Tuesday and 224 newly reported deaths, pushing the county’s total deaths from the virus above 11,000.

The board also voted unanimously to extend the county’s eviction moratorium to Feb. 28 and strengthen protections for tenants who fall behind on rent payments due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Supervisors also voted to draft an ordinance requiring grocery and retail stores in unincorporated portions of LA County to pay their workers an additional $5 per hour in “hero pay” during the pandemic. Barger abstained and said in a statement the financial impact of approving “hero pay” was still unclear.

“Lacking any true dialogue on this issue with grocery store representatives, the business community and other key stakeholders, we do not know if this significant wage increase could have unintended consequences to the very people we intend to help, leading to a rise in food prices and costs for our residents and reduced hours and benefits for the employees,” Barger wrote in the statement.

Tuesday’s supervisorial meeting was the first in county history to feature five women sitting on the board.

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