Some of Orange County’s most vulnerable residents are blocked from getting coronavirus vaccines because the rollout has been plagued by bugs and oversights, drawing criticism from OC Supervisors.
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Since the vaccination registration program, called Othena, was launched a couple weeks ago, scores of people have complained about glitches and outages, which is preventing them from signing up.
Some people were mistakenly getting their vaccine appointments through Othena, only to be turned away when they went to the vaccination supersites.
“So I registered as soon as OC Health said to. I had no expectation of anything and then on Thursday, I got the email that says congratulations we have a dose for you. And I was really surprised so I double checked to make sure it was Othena,” said Suzanne Haggerty, a 60-year old Rancho Santa Margarita resident.
Because the current distribution plans call for people 65 and older, Haggerty said she was surprised to get a vaccine confirmation through Othena and thought the service pulled medical records, showing she has respiratory issues.
She was turned away at the Disneyland supersite.
“I was there for 2.5 hours,” she said in a Monday phone interview. “So I get up to the table and give them my ID and the guy says you have to go home. He said you’re not 65.”
She said another person was also turned away and a supersite worker told her they turn away people in similar situations daily.
“The level of incompetence absolutely blew me away,” Haggerty said. “I tried to sign on to Othena and it won’t even let me back in.”
Some OC Supervisors publicly criticized Othena during Tuesday’s public meeting.
“There’s one thing we can all agree on — Othena sucks,” Supervisor Don Wagner said. “It’s a mess. It’s gotten better. You know it’s a mess, the CEO (Frank Kim) knows it’s a mess, everyone on this board knows it’s a mess.”
OC health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said glitches were expected.
“I mentioned it before, that 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.
Questions are also swirling around how the vaccine is being distributed at nursing homes, which is supposed to be done by pharmacies like Walgreens and Rite Aid through a partnership with the state.
Jill Swartz, an Orange resident, said the virus killed her mother while she was waiting for the vaccine to arrive at the Silverado Newport Mesa nursing home.
Her mother first tested positive for the virus Jan. 13 and died Jan. 17, she said.
“The most vulnerable residents in these facilities are dying,” Swartz said in a Friday phone interview.
Swartz said the nursing home expected the vaccine in December, but Walgreens failed to deliver the vaccine by then.
She said the facility has seen an outbreak.
Vaccinations at Silverado Newport Mesa are slated to start Friday, according to an email from nursing home administrators.
“Had they got it when they were supposed to, the outbreak shouldn’t have been as severe,” Swartz said. “It’s too late for my mom.”
At a news conference earlier this month, Chau said he or the Health Care Agency don’t know how the pharmacies are vaccinating people in nursing homes, or how many vaccinations have been administered.
It’s also unclear how state health officials are tracking vaccinations done through the pharmacy partnerships.
Chau also said the county only distributes about 20% of all the vaccines shipped to Orange County. The rest, he said, go to hospitals and other health care providers.
The nursing home vaccine issue wasn’t raised at Tuesday’s Supervisors meeting.
“How can they not have that information? I just find that absolutely unbelievable,” Swartz said.
When county officials unveiled the Soka University vaccination supersite at a Saturday news conference, Chau said OC had roughly 66,000 vaccines on hand and about 600,000 people currently qualify for them.
“We have a limited supply,” Chau said. “Please know my staff and I have been working tirelessly with our state partners to bring more vaccine.”
Swartz said county officials should’ve focused on vaccinating the most vulnerable seniors before expanding the number of people who are eligible for vaccinations when OC public health officials lowered the age requirement to 65 years and older a couple weeks ago.
“They keep talking about this limited supply, then why did you open it up to 65 and over already? You haven’t vaccinated the most vulnerable population. And somebody needs to be held accountable on this — the bad decisions, the negligence, they need to be held into account,” she said.
Meanwhile, some residents face a language barrier trying to register for the vaccine.
Othena doesn’t offer language options, although Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Korean translations are called for in the $1.2 million contract with Othena developer Composite Apps, Inc.
“The lack of ethnic languages … the hotline — I have gotten constituent comments. On the English line the phone just rang and rang and rang. And on the ethnic side, they either have people that don’t speak the language and it gets right back to the English line, and then it doesn’t get picked up. So the frustration is kind of multifold,” Supervisor Chairman Andrew Do said.
Chau said they’re working on the language barrier.
But Do said people expect all the kinks and oversights to be worked out beforehand.
“To the average person that when you design a system, these are issues you should’ve thought of right away. Not 30 days into it.”
Supervisor Doug Chaffee said the revised Othena app should be tested first.
“Are we going to be testing before we put it out there? I realize that may have been part of the problem with Othena in the first place,” Chaffee said. “I’m concerned about some of our seniors that may be a little tech illiterate.”
Chau said the county Health Care Agency is working with CalOptima to target vulnerable seniors in an effort to get them vaccinated through a mobile vaccination program.
“We still have problems with Othena, so we need to get working on that,” Chaffee said.
Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom quietly launched a statewide vaccine registration program in an effort to streamline the fractured rollout.
“I think we’re going to be able to port the data from Othena right into the state system,” Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said.
She said the app was created in a way to “literally take all the data fields and move it into a new system. So we shouldn’t lose anything in translation.”
Wagner visibly disagreed with Bartlett’s assessment.
“I have to say I share a little bit of Supervisor Wagner’s skepticism,” Do said.
Wagner responded, “Call me skeptical. Keep a close eye on them. Good luck.”
While county officials are trying to iron out wrinkles in OC’s mass vaccination efforts, virus hospitalizations have been declining.
As of Tuesday, 1,677 people were hospitalized, including 437 in intensive care units.
But deaths have been steadily increasing.
Since January began, the Health Care Agency has reported 895 people killed by the virus.
Newly reported deaths can stretch back weeks due to reporting delays.
The virus has now killed 2,768 people, including 64 new deaths reported Tuesday, out of a quarter million confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has already killed five 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.
Swartz said she tried to schedule an appointment through Othena for her mother.
“I tried that and it was just totally a disaster,” she said.
She said the fractured vaccine approach in OC and across the state is a disaster.
“I know we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I know things are a little bit crazy, but us getting a vaccine was no surprise, we knew it was coming,” Swartz said. “Their communication with the public has been lacking and not clear. On all fronts I feel like it’s been a disaster.”
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