California will begin offering COVID vaccine to residents age 65 and older

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California officials acted Wednesday to move everyone over age 65 into the state’s COVID-19 vaccine line, positioning them right after health care workers and skilled nursing home residents, a change made in response to the disease’s higher death rate for older people.

The new guidelines come just one month into the state’s massive but struggling effort to inoculate up to 40 million Californians and is intended to help simplify the state’s vaccine guidance that has caused confusion for those administering the shots. Gov. Gavin Newsom said the new standards mean roughly 6.6 million Californians are now eligible for the vaccine.

“There is no higher priority than efficiently and equitably distributing these vaccines as quickly as possible to those who face the gravest consequences,” Newsom said. “Individuals 65 and older are now the next group eligible to start receiving vaccines. To those not yet eligible for vaccines, your turn is coming. We are doing everything we can to bring more vaccine into the state.”

The state announcement comes a day after federal health officials changed their suggested guidelines to states to simplify vaccinations in hopes of speeding up what has been a slow initial launch.

The governor’s announcement immediately prompted protests from some county health officials who say the proposal to speed up vaccinations for people 65 and older does not solve the primary problem local officials say they face — a lack of vaccine doses. They also complained that their staffs are already overworked.

“Vaccinating individuals against COVID-19 is our highest priority, but we have to balance it with our other priorities including testing, case investigation and contact tracing,” said Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California.

“Today’s announcement does not address these problems. Expanding the list of who is eligible for the vaccine does not get us more doses. It does not get us more vaccinators, or any of the other resources we need to effectively run our operations.”

DeBurgh called on “increased resources from the state including funding and personnel. We also need our vaccine allocation to be reliable and predictable.”

Yolo County health officer Dr. Aimee Sisson concurred, saying Yolo County doesn’t have enough vaccine doses to finish with the first phase of shots to front-line health care workers. “Yolo County is administering doses as quickly as possible,” she said. “We will begin vaccinating those 65+ and others in Phase 1b as soon as we finish vaccinating the several thousand remaining health care workers prioritized in Phase 1a.”

California slow to give out vaccine

California has been slow to administer vaccines. As of Tuesday, the state had only distributed 25% of the 3.3 million doses it has received – well below the national average – prompting Newsom and his chief health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, to acknowledge the state’s efforts have been lackluster.

Last week, Newsom set a goal to get 1 million vaccines administered over 10 days, calling it “an all-hands-on-deck” moment.

Several Sacramento-area health departments and local clinics said the Wednesday morning announcement caught them by surprise, and they are now looking into what it may mean for their vaccinations going forward. Shortly after the initial announcement, the state’s Department of Public Health clarified that the change does not override the previous tiered priority system, but rather just moves seniors ahead in line.

Communities in California are at different stages in vaccinating people, and when seniors are able to get vaccines will depend on where they live, according to the California Department of Public Health. The department is encouraging seniors to call their doctor’s office to see if they can set up an appointment.

Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Healdsburg Democrat and a licensed dentist, said yesterday he helped administer vaccines to teachers and school workers at an event in Ukiah because that area has already moved on to that priority group. This morning, he toured the new vaccine site at CalExpo, where medical workers are still prioritizing vaccinating health care workers.

Wood, who chairs the Assembly’s Health Committee, said he thinks moving seniors up in line is the right move because it will give health care providers more flexibility to vaccinate more people.

“I think it’s absolutely the right decision,” he said.

As of now, doses have been going to front-line hospital workers, emergency responders, residents of skilled nursing facilities and, more recently, in the last few days, people age 75 and older who have chronic health issues.

The new guidelines will allow millions more at-risk Californians to get shots earlier, although state and local officials say their efforts are limited by the number of doses the state is being allocated by the federal government. Federal officials this week said they plan to withhold fewer doses in the coming weeks, sending more out to states instead of holding onto some for second-round shots.

Alex Azar, the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, said the allocation would be based in part on how quickly states have used up their current allotments.

“This next phase reflects the urgency of the situation we face,” Azar said Tuesday. “Every vaccine dose that is sitting in a warehouse rather than going into an arm could mean one more life lost or one more hospital bed occupied.”

Several states have already begun vaccinating those 65 and older, including Texas and Florida.

Who is getting a COVID vaccine?

As of earlier this week, some health care providers in California had begun to offer shots to people 75 and older. The change to 65 and up could help reduce hospitalizations, officials said.

With our hospitals crowded and ICUs full, we need to focus on vaccinating Californians who are at highest risk of becoming hospitalized to alleviate stress on our health care facilities,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, Director of the California Department of Public Health and State Public Health Officer. “Prioritizing individuals age 65 and older will reduce hospitalizations and save lives.”

Newsom also announced the state next week will launch a new system to alert people via text and email when they are eligible for a shot. The public can also contact their doctors for information, state health officials said.

California has administered just two doses of vaccine for every 100 people, well below the national average of three per 100, according to data compiled by Bloomberg news.

California health experts said it’s imperative that the state improve its distribution. “We’re just failing to get the doses out,” said Andrew Noymer, an infectious disease expert at UC Irvine.

But he also cautioned that California has to make sure there’s enough vaccine available for people to get their second doses. Those who get the Pfizer vaccine are supposed to get their second shots about three weeks later, while those who get the Moderna version are supposed to get their followup within four weeks.

California officials have acknowledged problems with the distribution. Ghaly said earlier this week that California’s focus on prioritizing the distribution, with emphasis on risk, exposure and equity, “has led to some delays in getting vaccine out into our communities.”

The Sacramento Native American Health Network, which has received state approval to distribute vaccines acquired by the county and has vaccinated most of its staff, is excited to offer the vaccine to more people — “once we have it,” said spokeswoman Jeanine Gaines. The health center has yet to receive COVID-19 vaccines to distribute to high-priority individuals previously listed under Phase 1b, she said.

“They say, ‘Hey, we’re going to open it up, but that doesn’t mean we have the vaccines,’” Gaines said.

Kiran Savage-Sangwan, executive director at the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, said that with Phase 1b’s expanded age bracket, some 3 million additional Californians will now be eligible to receive the vaccine.

That’s a good thing, she said, but county and state health officials will have to ensure doses get to low-income residents and communities of color who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

“The governor has announced we will have these mega sites to vaccinate people, but we know that sites like Cal Expo here didn’t reach low-income communities and communities of color,” she said. “My concern is we keep our equity principles, even in this expanded tier.”

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