Bay Area health officials are desperate for more vaccine to meet demand

As state and federal officials expanded vaccine eligibility this week, flummoxed local health officials in the Bay Area are desperate for more doses to meet the demand from those who were already eligible.

Since Contra Costa County began allowing all residents 65 and older to sign up for vaccination appointments — in accordance with new guidelines released by U.S. and California health authorities — it has received a thousand requests an hour, enough to meet its weekly allocation of doses in 12 hours. The website of Sutter Health, a health care provider vaccinating people in multiple counties, crashed Thursday under such high demand from vaccination inquiries. To make matters worse, a federal stockpile of second dose vaccines that had been factored into anticipated supplies were actually exhausted, throwing “chaos” into an already rocky rollout, in the words of one Santa Clara County official.

Contra Costa County has used half of its vaccine doses allocated thus far, but it’s not for a lack of trying. About 36,000 shots have been given, and the other 36,000 are already accounted for with appointments booked in the coming days and weeks. Another 33,000 are due to arrive soon.

“The county is not just sitting on those other 36,000 doses,” COVID-19 operations chief Dr. Ori Tzvieli said at a news conference Friday morning. “We are quickly ramping up our efforts to vaccinate as many people as possible. We want to get shots into arms. … But the mitigating step is really how much vaccine we’re getting allocated to us.”

By the end of next week, the county hopes to be administering 3,600 shots a day and scale up that capacity to 5,800 per day by next month. In Santa Clara County, officials are ramping up the number of vaccinations to the first phase of recipients, from about 3,000 given on Monday to 6,000 expected to be administered Friday.

Dr. Jennifer Tong, associate chief medical officer for Valley Medical Center, warned that’s just small sliver of the need.

“The biggest constraints we are facing right now is the availability of the vaccine,” she said.

So far, the county has administered 32,352 first doses and 6,594 second doses out of some 170,000 total allocated.

If there were more doses coming into Contra Costa County each week, Tzvieli would reevaluate the need for a mass-vaccination site. But with the limited amount available, its 20 or so smaller sites across the county are proving more effective, he said. Two more are set to open in Richmond and Antioch next week.

“It’s all about supply,” Tzvieli said. “If I had an extra 20,000 doses, I would arrange that in a jiffy, but I just don’t have those right now.”

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said they also continue to struggle to know how much vaccine capacity is in the county, largely because the hospital systems that provide care for a majority of South Bay patients, Kaiser and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, are receiving vaccine doses directly from the state. Federal providers, like CVS, Walgreens and the VA, are also beyond their data reach.

“We don’t have full visibility into what they’re doing,” Williams said.

Williams stressed that the state’s expansion of vaccine to eligibility to residents 65 and older does nothing to increase the available vaccine supply, which is why the county has instituted its own age threshold of 75. At least 300,000 residents in Santa Clara County are at least 65 years old.

“The reality is we have nowhere near that amount of vaccine to deliver,” he said. “We’re seeing demand outstrip supply, and outstrip basic capacity for things like scheduling.”

Officials in Contra Costa County said they are hoping to vaccinate all 77,000 of their residents who are 75 and older “in the next few weeks,” but in the meantime have opened appointments for anyone 65 and older. For now, though, most of the shots on a given day are still going to frontline health care workers and those over the age of 75.

Williams also said officials were dispirited by the revelation Friday that a purported stockpile of second doses did not exist.

“We learned this morning no such stockpile exists,” he said. “This throws into chaos the expectations around vaccine delivery.”

He hopes that the promise of a truly nationally coordinated vaccine rollout promised by the incoming Biden Administration will reverse what he calls an abdication by the Trump Administration, which he said has devoted resources to a futile attempt to overturn Biden’s election in the face of a pandemic whose death toll is approaching 400,000 in the United States.

“That has really distracted the energy of the federal government from its first and foremost job which is to protect and take care of everyone in the United States,” Williams said.

But the new administration will be facing a once-in-a-generation challenge to inoculate hundreds of millions of Americans in the coming months with vaccines that are hardly simple to administer. Even beyond the extreme storage and transportation demands, health care professionals need to be trained on how to deliver the shot, then additional staff is required to monitor recipients for the following 15 minutes in case of allergic reactions. All that must be accomplished in a safe, socially distanced manner.

“To cap it off,” Tzvieli said, “all this is being built while we’re facing the largest surge of the pandemic, which is already stretching our limited resources.”

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