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LA County scrambles to solve coronavirus vaccine riddle, as state grows eligibility list

LA County scrambles to solve coronavirus vaccine riddle, as state grows eligibility list

“Breaking news” from Sacramento — California officials’ announcement that as many as 6 million additional people may be eligible for the coronavirus vaccine, including people age 16-64 who have high-risk health conditions — left Los Angeles County health officials with a quandary.

“I think this is sort of breaking news and we’re going to have to spend some time to think about what the implications are for our planning,” said Dr. Paul Simon, the county’s chief science officer. “But it certainly  means there is even more now urgency to getting a great supply of vaccine.”

The severe health conditions on the state’s list are cancer, chronic kidney disease of stage 4 or above, down syndrome, weakened immune system from a solid organ transplant, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, heart conditions, severe obesity, and Type 2 diabetes with hemoglobin A1c greater than 7.5%.

The decision left local officials with an increasingly complex puzzle to solve.  Already strapped and scrambling for precious coronavirus vaccine, county public health officials on Friday, Feb. 12, ramped up their call for more.

Fearing they will run out of time to complete the process for millions of vaccine seekers, officials will again commit the majority of next week’s doses to people awaiting their second shot at the county’s mega vaccine pods in Pomona, Northridge, Inglewood, Downey and Valencia.

“We will only be providing second doses at our Mega-POD (point of dispending) sites,” said Simon, chief science officer for the county Department of Public Health.

The state’s announcement on vaccine for people with serious conditions arrived as L.A. County laid the groundwork for opening up eligibility to teachers, public safety workers and food/agricultural workers in the next few weeks.

Vaccinating teachers is considered by many to be a key component of getting students back onto school campuses around the region.

The inoculation equation is already mammoth in the nation’s most populous county, which has only vaccinated 20% of it residents 65 and older.

Simon, and county Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis, said expanding vaccine eligibility will require a vast network of providers, from healthcare networks to pharmacies to local neighborhood clinics, who would best know the conditions of such patients.

“Hopefully, many who be vaccinating their own patients will understand the medical conditions their patients have, will be able to incorporate that information in their, in many cases, electronic health records to identify those patients that have those conditions that place them at highter risk,” Simon said. “I would hope the implementation would be relatively straightforward. But it will require also very clear definitions of who’s eligibile under this new phase.”

Davis said that rollout will also be in the per view of health giant Blue Shield, which has partnered with the state to administrate the allocation of the vaccine.

Indeed, under the new state guidance, beginning March 15, healthcare providers “may use their clinical judgment to vaccinate  individuals age 16 to 64 who are deemed to be at the very highest risk for morbidity and mortality from COVID-19,” from at least one among several serious conditions,  according to the state’s Department of Public Health.

More than 1,345,000 doses of either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine have been given in the county. But only 3.8% of L.A .County residents 16 and over have been fully vaccinated with both doses.

The scarcity was enough for L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti this week to call the situation “unacceptable,” after announcing the Dodger Stadium — the largest vaccine site in the nation — to shut down until next week because of lack of doses. “I’m not here to point fingers. I’m here, as always, to be a partner. But I want to be clear. Los Angeles needs more doses.”

It was a rough week at vaccination centers, as shortfalls in supplies and jumbled messaging led to early shutdowns at some megacenters and overwhelming crowds as at lease one more.

Officials want to get as many people vaccinated as they can, wary of mutant versions of the virus and the potential of more super-spreader gatherings.

Davis on Friday touted the encouraging “downward” trends in the county’s virus stats. While still critically high, they reflect a waning holiday surge that brought L.A.’s hospitals to the brink of catastrophe.

The county reported 137 additional deaths and 3,497 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 — bringing the region’s totals to a total of 18,789 fatalities and 1,161,773 infections. Since Tuesday, Feb. 9, daily reported cases have stabilized near 3,500 new cases a day.

Hospitalizations stood at 3,426 in the county, down 188 from the day before, continuing a steep downward trend. The pressure on the region’s intensive care units also continued its easing — down to 1,032 patients.

The report did not include updated numbers for Long Beach and Pasadena, which operate their own health departments. Pasadena on Friday reported one  additional death for a total of 293 and 29 new cases for a total of 10,616. Long Beach reported 14 deaths Friday, for a total of 768, and 124 new cases, for a total 50,196.

Experts won’t know for about another week if gatherings to watch the Super Bowl would cause another surge, as the winter holidays did.

Davis urged people to continue adhering to protocols such as masking and physical distancing. He acknowledged changes that were formalized this week, allowing a resumption of indoor church services with limited capacity and limits on activities during services. But he stressed that despite the change, “it’s still safer for places of worship to hold outdoor and remote services only. These are the safest options for those at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and those that live with them.”

Davis expressed dismay over plans by Sun Valley’s Grace Community Church — which has repeatedly defied county and court orders by holding massive indoor services — to host an indoor religious conference in early March that typically attracts more than 3,000 people. He said the county is “exploring its options” for challenging the event. Such conferences are barred under health restrictions, but it’s unclear if the conflict would be exempted as a religious gathering.

“The county is very concerned about the public health impacts that could come from an event like this if it’s held, especially as we continue to see high case numbers and large numbers of people in hospitals that are sick with COVID-19 and as cases are being identified with different variants of the virus in our county, in our state, across the nation and in other areas worldwide,” Davis said.

On Friday night, however, the church announced it had opted to postpone the conference in light of its “ongoing litigation and recent threats from” the county and state over the planned event.

The Associated Press and City News Service contributed to this story.


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