After weeks of lagging behind most of the nation in the effort to administer its share of COVID-19 vaccines, California is in a mad dash to catch up and inoculate as many people as possible.
While it has inoculated the second-highest number of people in the nation after Texas, California ranks 43rd nationwide, including Washington D.C., in administering the shots per 100,000 residents. The nation’s most populous state has vaccinated about 1.5% of its residents, while South Dakota has vaccinated upwards of 5.5%, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To speed up the pace, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday announced he was granting public health departments more “flexibility” in deciding when to progress to the next tiers of people to receive the vaccine.
“We recognize that the current strategy is not going to get us where we need to go as quickly as we need to,” Newsom said during a press briefing.
Over the past month, the focus of California’s ambitious vaccine campaign has been to protect health care workers and patients in long-term care facilities — known as Phase 1a. But as of Monday, Newsom said counties now have the authority to move seamlessly into the subsequent phases and tiers and begin distributing the vaccine to a broader range of the public without specific state approval.
That means they don’t have to wait until everyone in Phase 1a is vaccinated when doses are also available for people who are 75 and older and workers in education, emergency services and food and agriculture. Counties then can progress to those who are 65 years and older, homeless and incarcerated individuals and workers in a variety of essential fields, including transportation and critical manufacturing.
While there’s universal agreement that the Phase 1a rollout should be for health care professionals and long-term care residents, a new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that states are increasingly diverging from Centers for Disease Control guidance — and from each other — on subsequent priorities, suggesting that access to COVID-19 vaccines and the time it takes a person of a certain population or occupation to receive it may depend on where one lives.
South Dakota, which is outpacing the rest of the country in per capita inoculations, has already vaccinated all of its health care workers and residents of skilled nursing facilities. It is starting inoculations of Phase 1c, which includes almost 50,000 EMS and frontline public health workers, law enforcement and correctional officers.
In West Virginia, where vaccinations of health workers and residents of long-term care facilities also have been completed, officials are now moving on to other populations, such as people age 80 and over and teachers who are 50 and older.
Meanwhile, California is still working its way through its 2.4 million California health care workers and skilled nursing patients.
To take more vaccines “out of the freezer and get it into people’s arms,” Newsom said the state this week is also opening up a handful of large-scale vaccination distribution sites, including Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, Padres Stadium in San Diego and Cal Expo in Sacramento, with plans to launch many more in the coming weeks.
In the Bay Area, plans are underway to set up vaccination sites at both RingCentral Coliseum in Oakland and the San Francisco Giants’ Oracle Park, officials confirmed Monday, but it is unclear how quickly they might be up and running. Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers sent a letter to Santa Clara County offering the use of Levi’s Stadium to help speed up vaccinations.
The new direction from the state comes as officials anxiously wait to see if the number of new daily cases and hospitalizations the rest of this week will be as bad as they feared before the holidays.
As Californians move further away from the holidays, the state has experienced a brief lull in new cases, and hospitalizations have stopped climbing — at least for now.
California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said he is hopeful that the dreaded surge “isn’t as significant as expected” thanks to stay-at-home orders, but he cautioned, “We still have a few days to see.”
Across much of the state, hospitals remain overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients from a surge in infections that began around the beginning of November. California’s cases have increased tenfold in that time and active hospitalizations by nearly as much.
In the Bay Area, intensive care unit capacity fell to its lowest point of the pandemic, hitting 0.7% on Monday, while hospitals in Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley entered their fourth week operating in surge capacity.
Seeing vaccinations as a key way to stop the spread of the fatal virus, Bay Area counties are implementing their own strategies in hopes of more efficiently vaccinating those eligible in the first round of inoculations.
On Monday, for example, San Mateo County launched its first drive-through COVID-19 Mass Vaccination Clinic.
And in Sonoma County, officials announced Monday a new partnership with Safeway to start administering its COVID-19 vaccinations to health care workers and eventually the greater public.
Meanwhile, Santa Clara County officials on Monday announced plans to adopt a new ordinance aimed at holding large health care systems accountable for more efficiently rolling out their vaccines.
Despite talk of some health care workers turning down the lifesaving supplies, state and local officials say that is not the reason for the delayed rollout of California’s vaccines.
Contra Costa County Health Officer Anna Roth said Monday that more than 85% of those eligible to receive their first dose of the vaccine are getting it.
“Not a lot are refusing,” Roth said. “After a week or two, we’re actually starting to see people who wanted to hold off come back and say, ‘I would like to get vaccinated.’ ”
According to a survey from the University of California, only about 2% of its health care workers have declined or postponed receiving a vaccine.
Staff writers Lisa Krieger and Shomik Mukherjee contributed to this story.