Appointments for first dose of COVID-19 vaccine drop by half in L.A. County, alarming public health officials

Colleen Shalby, Luke Money
·4 min read
Lakewood, CA - March 31: Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine given to seniors at coronavirus vaccination clinic established by L.A. County Department of Public Health at Whispering Fountains Senior Living Community on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 in Lakewood, CA.(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
L.A. County has seen a notable drop in demand for the COVID-19 vaccine. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Appointments for the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine have decreased by about 50% in Los Angeles County, alarming public health officials who call it a worrisome trend that reflects the slowdown in vaccination rates across the state and country.

The slowing demand probably means that, for the first time, the county will not reach its goal of administering 95% of its weekly supply, officials said. The revelation follows the announcement from officials earlier this week that about 18% of residents have missed their second-dose appointments.

“I do know that across the county this past week we saw much fewer people coming in to get vaccinated. For the first time ever, we've had appointments at many vaccination sites that have not been filled,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer during a news briefing Thursday.

The drop in demand has prompted the county to allow for more walk-ins at vaccination sites, rather than requiring appointments. That flexibility will be allowed through next week, and is likely to extend.

"All of our sites will continue to just take anybody who shows up, even if they don't have an appointment," Ferrer said. "I think the strategy moving forward for all of us is going to be to make it as easy as possible for people to get vaccinated. And for some that's going to mean that we're going to bring the vaccine close to where you already are at — if you're at a shopping center; if you're at a church or a mosque; if you're at a school."

Despite slowing demand, millions of people remain unvaccinated in the county. Only about 45% of residents have been partially vaccinated, according to a Times analysis, and more than 30% have been fully inoculated. To date, more than 7.2 million doses — including 2.6 million second shots — have been administered in the county.

Statewide, nearly 30 million doses have been administered statewide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 48.2% of Californians to date have received at least one vaccine dose and 29.9% are considered fully vaccinated.

Following months of vaccine demand that exceeded supply, interest has plateaued in recent weeks throughout the state after eligibility expanded to all residents 16 and older. Health experts and officials have attributed the drop to a variety of reasons, including ongoing hesitancy around the vaccine and access issues.

The mobilization of community outreach groups to educate and persuade wary residents has been key to boosting vaccine rates, say some experts. But more is needed, according to Ferrer, who said the county is working with trusted leaders and influencers in the community to spread the word about the efficacy of the vaccine.

While transmission, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 remain low throughout the state and in L.A. County, health experts have said that ongoing vaccinations continue to be key in the fight against the virus. But a vaccination rate of 100% is unlikely, experts have said, and getting the remainder of unvaccinated eligible residents to get a shot could take some time. That, combined with children who are not yet eligible for a shot, is a substantial amount of the population, experts have said.

Even as demand declines, vaccine supply is expected to continue increasing. California is poised to receive almost 90,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine next week as U.S. officials resume supplies of the single-shot COVID-19 vaccine.

The expected allocation of 87,800 doses would be the first direct federal shipment of J&J shots since the week of April 12 — when administration of the vaccine was temporarily halted while health officials investigated reports of a rare blood-clotting disorder among a handful of recipients.

Federal health agencies lifted the pause after 10 days last Friday, clearing the way for the shots to resume.

Along with Johnson & Johnson, California is slated to receive roughly 1.15 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 857,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine next week.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.