California Counties ‘Flying the Plane as We Build It’ in Plodding Vaccine Rollout

In these first lumbering weeks of the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history, Dr. Julie Vaishampayan has had a battlefront view of a daunting logistical operation.

Vaishampayan is the health officer in Stanislaus County, an almond-growing mecca in California’s Central Valley that has recorded about 40,000 cases of COVID-19 and lost 700 people to the illness. Her charge is to see that potentially lifesaving COVID-19 shots make it into the arms of 550,000 residents.

And like her dozens of counterparts across the state, she is improvising as she goes.

From week to week, Vaishampayan has no idea how many new doses of COVID vaccines will be delivered until just days before they arrive, complicating advance planning for mass inoculation clinics. The inoculation clinics themselves can be a bureaucratic slog, as county staffers verify the identities and occupations of people coming in for shots to ensure strict compliance with the state’s multitiered hierarchy of eligibility. In these early days, the county also has provided vaccines to some area hospitals so they can inoculate health care workers, but the state system for tracking whether and how those doses are administered has proven clumsy.

With relatively little help from the federal government, each state has built its own vaccination rollout plan. In California, where public health is largely a county-level operation, the same departments managing testing and contact tracing for an out-of-control epidemic are leading the effort. That puts an already beleaguered workforce at the helm of yet another time-consuming undertaking. A lack of resources and limited planning by the federal and state governments have made it that much harder to get operations up and running.

Read the full story.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester, California Healthline

California Extends Deadline for Unemployment Applicants to Verify Identity

The state’s Employment Development Department has extended the number of days applicants have to verify their identity before the agency disqualifies their claim.

Applicants will now have 30 days instead of 10 to complete the verification; the countdown starts on the day they receive verification guidance from EDD, which should arrive through an emailed link or the U.S. mail. All those receiving emailed links were supposed to have received them by Jan. 14.

The EDD froze the accounts of about 1.4 million Californians at the end of last year in an attempt to prevent fraud. These applicants are now all trying to verify their identities through the state’s ID.me verification system.

EDD delivered the verification guidance on a rolling basis to avoid crashing its online systems. But ID.me was already overloaded at the end of last year, and claimants have been waiting for hours to verify their identities through video when their documents weren’t approved through other avenues.

The department implemented ID.me in an attempt to cut down on the manual processing times that were contributing to the huge backlog. But in early January, advocates had resorted to filing hardcopy forms, said Daniela Urban, founder of the Center for Workers’ Rights in Sacramento.

“We have them fill out a paper form or assist them in filling out a paper form and submit that instead, so that we don't have to deal with ID.me,” she said.

Last year EDD had pledged to lawmakers to clear a backlog of more than 1.6 million claims identified in the fall. While the agency says it is on track to accomplish that goal by around the end of January, that doesn’t include the 1.4 million suspended accounts. Beyond those two backlogged buckets, there are also more than 940,000 current claims that EDD has yet to resolve.

On top of the long wait times for verification, many applicants have received confusing messages directing them to unnecessarily reopen their claims. Claimants who receive this message should wait until EDD prompts them to certify. The agency has said it expects to complete these claims in question by Friday.

Advocates say the glitch is a result of all the pending changes to accounts coming in the wake of the December stimulus bill passing.

Mary Franklin Harvin

Bay Area Counties Ramp Up Vaccination Plans

As President Biden promises to deliver 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine in his first 100 days in office, some Bay Area counties are following suit with their own ambitious goals to vaccinate as many residents as possible by summer.

San Francisco on Friday launched its first mass vaccination site at City College of San Francisco’s Ocean Avenue campus, in what the city's COVID Command Center is calling a "soft launch." The city, in partnership with several health care providers, planned on administering about 500 vaccines to start before ramping up.

Two other sites, at Moscone Center and The SF Market, south of Potrero Hill, are expected to open around the beginning of February.
Pending supply, officials hope to eventually vaccinate 10,000 people a day, with the goal of reaching most San Franciscans by the end of June.

Residents can sign up on a city website to get notified when they're eligible for a vaccine appointment.

Contra Costa County health officials announced Friday they want to administer a million doses of the vaccine by Independence Day.

“If we get those million doses out, we will be in a very different situation come July 4 then we are in now, and we will be able to feel very confident in moving forward,” said Anna Roth, the director of Contra Costa Health Services.

Diane Burgis, chair of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, said in a statement, “We believe this is a realistic goal, provided our supply of vaccine increases.”

Nearly 55,000 Contra Costa County residents have received their first dose of the vaccine, and 10,000 have received both doses.

The county is prioritizing residents 75 and older, but health officials are encouraging people over 65 to begin registering for appointments on the county’s website.

Santa Clara County also opened a new mass vaccination site at the Mountain View Community Center, on Rengstorff Avenue.

“We don't have a month to lose. We don't have a week to lose,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, whose district includes Mountain View. “We don't have a single day to lose. We just can't afford to let time go by. It's very gratifying to know that we are up and running and that in short order will be a thousand vaccinations a day at just this site."

The community center site will offer vaccinations by appointment only, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday, working up to 1,000 vaccinations per day.

The county and health care providers are offering vaccinations to health care workers, long-term care facility residents and people over 74.

You can find links to schedule an appointment in Santa Clara County under the "Who is Currently Eligible to be Vaccinated" section of the county's vaccine information page.

Marco Siler-Gonzales and Jon Brooks

California's Clearest COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment Dashboard Is Run by Volunteers

If you've been looking for facts about getting your COVID-19 vaccine, you might have discovered that just finding clear information on how to schedule an appointment for an eligible person can be a difficult, time-consuming process.

A week ago, a site called VaccinateCA launched that not only lists vaccination sites around California, but details their current vaccine availability. The information is gathered manually by a team who compiled a list of medical centers, pharmacies and hospitals around the state, and now regularly contacts those locations to confirm their vaccine inventory — as well as what groups they're now accepting, and how to make an appointment yourself.

But the thing about VaccinateCA? It's completely staffed by volunteers who make those calls, maintain the website and coordinate efforts across the state. And this crowdsourcing is filling a need in California that as yet, health officials don't seem to have addressed themselves: the need for residents to simply schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment near them.

Read the full story.

Carly Severn

Legislators, School Officials Skeptical About Newsom Plan to Restart In-Person Learning

State legislators and school officials are raising concerns over Gov. Gavin Newsom's plan to restart in-person learning in California public schools.

Newsom has proposed $2 billion to pay for testing, protective equipment and other safety enhancements to reopen the lowest grades as soon as Feb. 16.

At a state Senate hearing Thursday, state Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, said that despite the fanfare around Newsom's goal of reopening next month, a host of disagreements over the plan remain.

"The fact of the matter is, what we're really saying is most schools won't open," Cortese said.

One big point of contention: A proposal for weekly testing of students. That's a high hurdle for superintendents like Shelly Viramontez of the Campbell Union School District.

“The requirement for the student testing really made no sense to me," Viramontez said.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said the proposed grants of $450 per student wouldn't be enough to cover anything beyond the cost of the plan's testing requirements.

"I’m very concerned about what that’s going to mean and the requirements on districts just on the testing side to be able to make it work," McGuire said.

The Newsom administration says it's trying to pool testing to bring costs down.

Many teacher unions say COVID-19 cases are too prevalent to bring students back, while the Newsom administration says school outbreaks are rare.

The Legislature could begin voting on the plan next week.

Guy Marzorati

California Withholds Data for Assessing Stay-at-Home Orders, Catching Local Officials Off Guard

California's public health agency recently surprised local officials by lifting a stay-at-home order in the 13-county Greater Sacramento region.

Suddenly, outdoor dining and worship services were OK again, hair and nail salons and other businesses could reopen, and retailers could have more shoppers inside.

Local officials and businesses were caught off guard. State officials did not describe their reasoning other than to say it was based on a projection for ICU capacity.

“It was a good surprise, but we just didn’t see it coming,” California Restaurant Association President and CEO Jot Condie said. “We just don’t know what happens behind the curtain. It’s created logistical difficulties for the industry,” which scrambled to rehire staff and order food.

State health officials relied on a complex formula to project that while the region’s intensive care capacity was below 10%, it would climb above 15% within four weeks. On Thursday, it was 8%, roughly the same as when the order was lifted.

“What happened to the 15%? What was that all about?” asked Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases control expert at UCSF. “I was surprised. I assume they know something I don’t know.”

State officials projected future capacity using a combination of models.

“At the moment the projections are not being shared publicly,” California Department of Public Health spokeswoman Ali Bay said in an email.

It’s a mystery how the state decided to lift regional restrictions because officials won’t share their data despite repeated pledges of transparency.

State officials projected intensive care unit capacity and virus spread four weeks into the future to make the determination. Bay said “at the moment the projections are not being shared publicly,” because officials say they could cause more confusion.

San Bernardino County spokesman David Wert said officials there aren’t aware of the secret models but would welcome being able to see the data.

Read the full story.

—Don Thompson, Associated Press

California Weighs Speed Over Equity in Vaccine Distribution Plan

An ambitious plan tailored to deliver coronavirus vaccines to California’s most vulnerable populations is fraying under pressure to simplify and speed up the state’s rocky vaccination rollout.

A week after Gov. Gavin Newsom expanded vaccine eligibility to residents 65 and older, state officials are now proposing a plan to complete vaccinations for all seniors before anyone else. The shift is causing frustration among health advocates who have spent the last two months hashing out a plan that prioritized essential workers and gave more weight to racial and socioeconomic factors.

With a scarce vaccine supply and a mounting death toll, the tension between equity and efficiency is increasing.

“The feedback that we got is, the first system is too complicated, it’s slowing us down,” said Tomás Aragón, the new director of the state’s public health department, who helped outline the new age-based priority proposal at public meetings on Jan. 12 and 20. “Got to keep it simple. Simplicity is going to save lives.”

Distributing vaccines by age is easier and will help ease the burden on the state’s overwhelmed health care system, Aragón said. Older people account for 65% of ICU admissions in California and 83% of deaths, according to the latest state health data.

But there are 6.2 million Californians 65 and older, and the state is only receiving up to 500,000 doses of vaccine every week, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan. At that rate, the state wouldn’t begin vaccinating essential workers until May.

Equity advocates called this proposed delay “disturbing," arguing that many agricultural workers face equal or higher health risk at work than do elderly people who may have the means to shelter at home.

Read the full story.

April Dembosky

San Francisco to Test Out First Mass Vaccination Site Friday

The first mass vaccination site in San Francisco is scheduled to open at City College of San Francisco's Ocean Avenue campus on Friday for what the city's COVID Command Center is calling a "soft launch." The city, in partnership with several health care providers, is planning to administer about 500 vaccines that day to test out operations before ramping up.

Appointments must be scheduled through residents' health care providers, but all of tomorrow's slots have been filled.

Two other sites, at Moscone Center and The SF Market, south of Potrero Hill, are expected to open around the beginning of February.

Pending supply, officials hope to to ramp up to vaccinating 10,000 people a day, with the goal of reaching most San Franciscans by the end of June.

KQED News