Orange County officials are preparing to launch another coronavirus vaccination site at Soka University, while questions linger about how seniors, disabled people and non-English speakers can access the vaccine.
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Instead of holding weekly news conferences to update residents on virus trends and other pandemic developments, county officials have instead focused on rolling out the vaccine site in an elaborate public relations campaign — while questions swirl on who exactly can access the sites.
Virus deaths have been steadily increasing for the past couple of weeks.
The first vaccination super site was unveiled last week at Disneyland while officials held a news conference.
Officials are slated to hold a news conference Saturday on the Soka University site.
Many residents said they can’t go to the site because it’s too physically demanding on seniors and disabled people to stand in line for at least an hour, or they can’t even get to the site.
The Orange County Health Care Agency said some more accessible sites will be coming.
“Individuals 65+ have option of getting vaccinated at Super POD w/appointment or alternate sites specifically assisting this population. Info about senior-friendly locations will be shared soon,” reads a Saturday tweet from the agency.
No update about the tailored sites have been made since.
The Soka University vaccination site is slated to open Saturday and, like Disneyland, people are required to schedule an appointment.
But the appointment scheduling website and mobile phone application, Othena, has been plagued by a wave of glitches and outages.
Some residents, like 71-year-old Huntington Beach resident JoAnn Arvizu have given up trying to score an appointment through Othena.
“I think everyone’s just all stressed out. I’ve had a couple friends tell me today, ‘Forget it, I’ll just stay home,’” Arvizu said.
A 70-year-old Brea resident said he and his wife have been trying to get an appointment since Othena launched last week.
He criticized the county for not making sure the medically vulnerable elderly people get it before opening the two-part vaccines to people 65 years and older.
“Why open it up when you can’t meet the demand,” the resident said, asking not to be named out of fear of losing a chance at getting vaccinated.
Last week, county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said people should contact their primary care doctors to schedule a vaccine.
The Brea resident said his doctor and health care provider have no idea what Chau was talking about.
“I also contacted the provider. The first day I contacted them, they had no information. The next day I called back and they still don’t have specifics,” he said.
He also criticized the lack of information flowing from the county, like how many doses are on hand and how many more officials expect.
“There’s absolutely no transparency,” the Brea resident said.
There’s also questions about how many vaccines will be coming into California.
Counties have to place orders with the state Department of Public Health, who then sends the requests to the CDC for approval. Once approved, the vaccine manufacturers ship directly to counties, hospitals and pharmacies.
At a Wednesday California Vaccine Advisory Meeting, state public health officer Dr. Erica Pan said half of the 4.2 million vaccines ordered need to be set aside for second doses.
“Does it make sense to get more first doses in and delay second doses — they (CDC) have been really clear … they feel really strongly that we should stick to, as best we can, the recommended doses because that has been shown to get efficacy close to 95%,” she said.
She also said the state’s vaccine allocation may slightly increase.
“It’s only less than 500,000 a week is our current allocation. It may increase slightly … I think the most might be another 100,000 a week. It’s a very small amount at least for the next several weeks,” Pan said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to introduce a statewide vaccination registration program, following scores of problems counties are facing in California’s fractured vaccine rollout, according to reporting from CalMatters.
Locally, there’s also language barriers faced by people in some of the hardest hit neighborhoods in OC because the Othena registration process is only offered in English.
In comparison, San Diego and Los Angeles counties offer multiple language translations on their respective vaccination appointment websites.
Bernadette Boden-Albala, dean of Public Health at UC Irvine, said county officials should be reevaluating and revamping the current vaccination registration efforts while OC waits for more vaccines from the state.
“While we’re waiting for the vaccine, we need to make sure everything else is in place. That everybody has access to registration and appointment times. I’d’ rather be scheduled to have a vaccine for my aunt in three weeks, than waiting and waiting and waiting on the website,” she said. “There’s a lot of frustration with the app.”
Boden-Albala, who sits on the county’s vaccine task force, said she will be voicing her concerns to the task force meeting today.
“I think that there’s a lot of things that are troubling to me,” She said. “Is the way in which we register for a vaccine — is that efficient? Are we making sure that everybody has equal access to that in terms of language?”
She also raised concerns over working class, medically vulnerable people.
“When we think about access, what about the folks who work two or three jobs that don’t have the hours to go to the super site?” Boden-Albala said. “Now is the time to really acknowledge that. It’s all in — we need everybody’s help and we need to do this in an organized manner.”
Meanwhile, hospitalizations have been slightly decreasing.
As of Thursday, 1,935 people were hospitalized, including 517 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
While hospitalizations are decreasing, bodies are piling up across Orange County.
The virus has now killed 2,546 people out of 217,849 confirmed cases, including 38 new deaths reported Thursday.
Newly reported deaths can stretch back weeks due to reporting errors.
Over the past week, 367 new deaths have been reported by the county Health Care Agency.
Since January began, the agency reported 673 people killed by the virus.
UC Irvine epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said he expects OC to hit 4,000 dead by March 1.
The virus has already killed more than four times as many people as 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.
According to the state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
Orange County has already surpassed its yearly average 20,000 deaths, with 21,110 people dead as of November, according to the latest available state data.
It’s a difficult virus for the medical community to tackle because some people don’t show any symptoms, yet can still spread it. Others feel slight symptoms, like fatigue and a mild fever.
Others end up in ICUs for days and weeks before making it out, while other people eventually die from the virus.
Boden-Albala said the new virus strains recently discovered in the state underscores the need to bolster vaccination efforts.
“We really want to get a good 70 to 80% of people vaccinated, especially with these new mutant strains — we’re investigating, but they look to be more infectious,” she said. “It may be now that with these mutant strains that each person who’s infected could spread it to three people or four people. So the more contagious might mean the higher the herd immunity level needs to be.”
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