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Vaccine Chaos: Californians Scramble for Shots Amid Mixed Messaging



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The chaos and confusion many Californians experienced this week in their search for a COVID-19 vaccine only intensified today as Gov. Gavin Newsom revealed that the state would not receive an additional supply of doses it was counting on to accelerate vaccination.

Newsom said he, like other governors, expected about 50 million doses to be released from storage by the feds in the next few days. “And then we read, as everybody else, that they have reneged or … are unable to deliver on that,” he said at a news conference unveiling a new mass vaccination site at Dodger Stadium.

Governor Believes Supply Sufficient for 2nd Dose

The governor said he does expect there to be enough vaccine for Californians who already have received their first shot and need the required second dose. But the state needs to verify the supply it will be given, he said.

Just 48 hours ago, federal officials had promised states an expanded supply of vaccine and demanded they start vaccinating people 65 and older and those with documented preexisting conditions to speed the slow pace of immunizations nationwide.

But a national stockpile of vaccines held back for necessary second doses appears to have been depleted, meaning that states won’t get the amount of vaccine they were counting on to dramatically ramp up mass vaccination campaigns, according to a Washington Post report Friday.

Goal of 1 Million Vaccinations in 10 Days

Newsom last week announced an audacious goal of immunizing 1 million people in 10 days, under mounting political pressure over the state’s slow vaccine rollout. But at least 450,000 people would need to receive shots today to fulfill that goal. The state is on pace to achieve it, Newsom said, adding that there is a lag in the state’s data reporting.

California has used about 30% of the doses it has been allocated from the federal government while Texas has used about 55%, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. California ranks 43rd among states in the proportion of people it has immunized.

On Wednesday, following hastily-announced federal guidance, Newsom said that anyone 65 and older could now be immunized — broadening a complicated priority system that previously reserved doses for health workers and nursing home residents.

Patchwork Approach to Vaccinations

Local public health officials and health systems weren’t at all ready for an onslaught of potentially 6 million seniors. Not all adopted the state’s recommendation, creating a patchwork of access that Californians are now trying to decipher.

Reports of glitches mounted as counties launched dozens of different online platforms for appointment sign-ups and waiting lists. Tiny Inyo County, with about 18,000 residents, had to ask people to sign up with just a Google form.

Californians across the state reported finding every appointment taken online and voiced their outrage on social media. They held on phone lines for hours. Their bewilderment and frustration only grew as they learned that some vaccination sites would only accept people 75 and older, while some would accept those 65 and above. And some still would only immunize health workers because they didn’t have enough doses for everyone.

“Any rollout like this is bound to run into snags, but this level of problems is concerning,” said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, professor and vaccine expert at UC Hastings College of Law. “Every day we wait, thousands of people are at risk of dying.”

The state’s public health agency today reported 42,655 new cases and 637 deaths as a more infectious “U.K.” coronavirus variant spreads across California and nationwide. About 32 cases of the variant have been reported in California, more than any other state, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Winter COVID Surge Continues

California continues its winter surge — the worst since the pandemic started. About 13% of tests are coming back positive, although hospitalizations are beginning to decrease slightly, according to the latest state data.

Linda Kosut Lyon, a 74-year-old cabaret singer who lives in San Francisco, spent hours on the phone this week trying to get a vaccine appointment at Kaiser Permanente. She said she finally reached a representative today — only to be told all slots were full for now. Call back tomorrow, the representative advised.

“This is crazy. I’m frustrated by it,” Kosut Lyon said. “I’m just upset with the system and how it’s working.The vaccine is just not available. And nobody was prepared, not even Kaiser.”

In Fresno, media reports showed a line of cars stretching for nearly four miles to reach one vaccination site as residents waited for hours for their life-changing injections. A similar scene unfolded in Orange County, where more than 10,000 residents signed up in a single day for a mass vaccination campaign in a Disneyland parking lot. Santa Clara County officials on Wednesday turned away at least 100 people who improperly jumped the line after sharing a secret web link, county counsel James Williams said.

Over the weekend in Tulare County, an internal link for scheduling appointments was shared on social media, and because the state’s vaccine registration site does not filter by eligibility, anyone and everyone with the link could sign up, Tim Lutz, director of the county’s health agency, told the Board of Supervisors this week.

The leaked link prompted people from as far as the Bay Area to make an appointment in Tulare. Most of the appointments were cancelled in time, others showed up only to learn that despite their appointment, they did not yet qualify for a shot.

And people who were being turned away became angry, Lutz said. “We’re starting to see the increase in aggressive patrons…they’re frustrated, they want the vaccine.”

San Francisco cabaret singer Linda Kosut Lyon has spent hours on the phone trying to get a vaccine appointment but, so far, hasn’t been able to get one. (Photo courtesy of Linda Kosut Lyon)

Hasty Expansion Threatens Equity Efforts

The hasty expansion of vaccination also threatens to derail careful planning to ensure that doses get to the people most devastated by the pandemic – Latinos, other people of color, and low-income Californians working essential jobs, health advocates said.

“If this year has taught us anything it’s that equity can no longer be ignored,” Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez said at the stadium newsconference. “We need to distribute it quickly, but we also need to distribute it justly.”

Leah Russin, co-founder of the advocacy group Vaccinate California, empathized with local public health officials who, she said, have been asked to roll out mass vaccination campaigns at the same time as they’re battling the worst surge of the pandemic. But Californians deserve better, she said.

“It feels like some decisions have been made that haven’t been thoroughly explained and they may increase inequity or confusion. Neither of those things are good at a time when we’re fighting against extraordinary mistrust of government,” said Leah Russin, co-founder of Vaccinate California.

“We have to be exceedingly transparent and do it fast, without mistakes. I know I’m asking us to be amazing, but we have to be.”

About the Authors

Barbara Feder Ostrov, is a contributing writer for CalMatters and has reported on medicine and health policy for more than 15 years. Ana is a Sacramento-based health reporter. She joined CalMatters in 2020 after four years at Kaiser Health News, where she covered California health care and policy.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters. COVID-19 coverage, translation and distribution is supported by generous grants from the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the California Wellness Foundation and the California Health Care Foundation.