Diverse language options for Orange County’s $1.2 million coronavirus vaccination app will take another week to rollout, officials announced late Wednesday, reacting to a mounting tide of public concern as many residents struggle to get an appointment for the shots.
The county government’s vaccination registration service, called Othena, is currently only offered in English — despite a November contract calling for Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean translations.
Translations are just part of the problems plaguing the vaccine rollout, with county supervisors publicly criticizing health care agency officials on Tuesday for numerous glitches, saying they’re flooded with complaints from residents about the app — one supervisor publicly said the app “sucks.”
At an abruptly scheduled Wednesday afternoon news conference, Dr. Margaret Bredehoft, Deputy OC Health Care Agency Director of Public Health Services, defended the registration service.
She said many problems stem from demand outpacing vaccine supply.
Bredehoft also defended delays in diverse language options, saying they were just a byproduct of the agency needing to make sure the website and mobile phone application worked before translating them.
“In the contract we are supposed to go up to our five threshold languages, but the reason we didn’t go out the gate is we wanted to have some, at least, stability in the platform itself. And then once we found stability, we wanted to then translate so that we didn’t have to revise the translations with every single change,” Bredehoft said.
Bredehoft said Spanish and Vietnamese translations should come next week.
Yet responding to County Supervisor Don Wagner’s questions about resident complaints regarding lack of translation, County health officer and OC Health Care Agency Director, Dr. Clayton Chau, told county supervisors Tuesday that language translations would land this week.
Despite making up roughly 35% of OC’s residents, Latinos only account for 11% of the approximately 177,000 vaccinations, according to a vaccine tracker from the county Health Care Agency.
Latinos have 44% of all virus cases in the county and over 38% of deaths.
Asians and Pacific Islanders make up roughly 21% of OC’s residents and have over 11% of virus case, nearly 19% of deaths and 30% of vaccinations.
Bredehoft said Cura Patient – owned by Composite Apps Inc. – was the most qualified to handle the registration platform, which is based on an artificial intelligence program.
“CuraPatient was that one vendor that had most of the components we wanted to use so we can best roll out this vaccine in an efficient way, but most of all in an effective way,” Bredehoft said.
Only taking limited questions from reporters, Bredehoft didn’t speak about how the $1.2 million cost for the program was arrived at, why the contract was outsourced or how benchmarks were established.
She said the uncertainty of which vaccines would be available left public health officials with little time to respond.
“By the time we understood which vaccine platform was going to roll out, we only had two weeks to figure out the platform that we were going to use,” Bredehoft said.
So far, Othena has registered about half a million accounts.
But it’s unclear if that means half a million people.
At Tuesday’s regular public county supervisor meeting, Supervisor Chairman Andrew Do said some of those registrations could be multiple email accounts from the same people in an effort to get vaccinated earlier.
“What we see is people trying to maximize their chance to maybe get an appointment by creating multiple accounts,” Do said.
Currently, the county’s vaccination supersites at Disneyland and Soka University are only taking health care workers and people over 65 years old.
At a Saturday news conference, Chau said there were roughly 66,000 vaccines on hand.
Bredehoft said it could be over two months before everyone in the first tier — health care workers and people older than 65 — are vaccinated before moving on to other groups.
“The crux of it is that ultimately we can’t get everybody an appointment because of the limited supply of vaccine,” she said.
Chau told county supervisors the same thing Tuesday.
Do disputed the assertion the lack of vaccines is the problem.
“I’m going to have to push back a little bit on perhaps us being a little bit too dismissive in saying people’s frustration with Othena stems from a lack of supplies,” Do told Chau. “I think an acknowledgement that there is a problem with Othena that we can repair … it would go further with the public than to kind of just brush it aside like that.”
Meanwhile, questions have been raised by residents on who gets chosen for the vaccine first — the elderly or the medically vulnerable.
“The simple truth is that the state has not required us to pivot to comorbidities. Because they themselves don’t understand how to prioritize comorbidities,” Bredehoft said at the Wednesday news conference.
So far, the virus has killed 2,389 people.
That’s more than five times the flu does on a yearly average.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
Last year, Orange County surpassed its yearly average 20,000 deaths, with 21,110 people dead as of November, according to the latest available state data.
At Tuesday’s meeting, OC Supervisor Don Wagner said, “Othena sucks.”
“Tell the public how to best go about using Othena, why they should use Othena and can you assure us you get it and steps are coming to make it suck less,” Wagner told Chau.
“Standing up a system, there’s always glitches. And we hear people’s frustration. Even in a few days it’s improved significantly,” Chau said.
He said the program manages scheduling and reports vaccination data to the state.
“We have successfully created an efficiency,” Chau said.
Bredehoft echoed the same comments about glitches and outages during Wednesday’s news conference.
During Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting, Chau also said the county would be worse without the app.
“We would be in trouble,” Chau said. “How would you manage your allocation so you are not overgiving people their first dose and then do not have enough vaccine for people on their second dose?”
For more details on the COVID-19 vaccine in Orange County view our Voice of OC information page: http://bit.ly/occovidvaccine.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio
Reporters Nick Gerda and Brandon Pho contributed to this story.