Concerns are mounting that Blue Shield’s incoming takeover of Southern California’s vaccine distribution could slow down the supply pipeline and throw a wrench in Orange County’s vaccination efforts. 

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State officials hope the Blue Shield partnership will both streamline the vaccine distribution process and address disparities, but very little is known about how the system is going to work.

Blue Shield representatives and state health officials have remained largely silent on what residents and county officials can expect when the health insurance company is expected to take over vaccine distribution March 7. 

Bernadette Boden-Albala, founding dean of the public health program at UC Irvine, said it’s time for the health insurance giant and state officials to be more transparent about the distribution takeover.

“Blue Shield, Orange County wants to know: what’s your process? You need to be transparent. We have people in need, we have communities of color who are at high risk. We want to know what you’re going to do about this and who are your providers? We need that information and they need to let us know,” Boden-Albala said in a Thursday phone interview.

Blue Shield is supposed to be responsible for picking vaccine providers and contracting with them, according to the $15 million no-bid contract released last Monday. 

The state Government Operations Agency has to approve vaccine provider contracts before becoming part of the distribution system, according to the contract with Blue Shield.

Andie Martinez-Patterson, government affairs VP for the California Primary Care Association, said the situation has been fluid. 

“It is a crazy, evolving issue,” she said in a Thursday phone interview. 

The Sacramento-based association, which advocates for community health clinics in underserved neighborhoods, has been pushing for over a month to “ensure that no health center or community provider will be cut off from vaccinating,” Martinez-Patterson said. 

It took until yesterday to get an answer.

“Last night at 5 o’clock, I talked with the Secretary of Government Operations Agency (Yolanda Richardson) and she said that’s a rumor, that’s not going to happen,” Martinez-Patterson said. “I do have to give credit and I’m grateful that Blue Shield and the state heard us … they’re going to offer contracts to everybody.” 

Locally, health clinics throughout OC are trying to close the vaccine gap and tackle supply issues at the same time. 

As of last Thursday, the Latino community has received 12% of the over half a million doses administered.

Latinos, while making up roughly 35% of OC’s residents, have nearly 45% of cases and almost 38% of the virus deaths.

In comparison, white people received 48% of the vaccines, make up over 38% of the county’s residents, have roughly 25% of cases and 37% of deaths. 

Not much is known about how the Blue Shield distribution is going to work, who’s going to oversee it and how guidelines will be enforced.

A state public health spokesman said officials will roll out more details Friday — nearly two weeks after the contract was made public. 

But the spokesman didn’t say if the details will be presented in an internet-streamed news conference or media call. 

Boden-Albala said state officials and Blue Shield representatives should’ve already been talking to vaccine providers to answer questions and detail how the distribution is going to work. 

“They should’ve already been dealing with this, but everybody I ask said we don’t know anything yet. How could that be? Where are our Senators and Congress people? Are they not asking the questions?” she said. “Blue Shield needs to be accountable. Blue Shield needs to be presenting to us, in Orange County,  this is how your vulnerable population, all your vulnerable communities are going to get the vaccine.” 

In a Thursday text message, OC health officer and county Health Care Agency Director, Dr. Clayton Chau, said there still hasn’t been a meeting with Blue Shield.

Martinez-Patterson said she has a priority list of counties for Blue Shield to meet with and OC sits at 24 out of 58 counties.

“I do know that they’re going in order and they’re having a conversation with every county,” she said. “They’re asking the counties for a list of their vaccine providers.” 

The priority list is based on metrics like the number of virus cases, deaths and health equity metrics — like how bad a county’s poorest population has been hit, who are often essential workers.

Lack of details and uncertainty is plaguing counties across the state. 

San Joaquin officials told CalMatters they haven’t had much discussion with Blue Shield about the specifics of the transition. 

As of Monday, Stanislaus County officials still didn’t know what to expect, according to KCRA.

San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties were supposed to be among the first wave of counties to be rolled into the Blue Shield distribution process this week, but those plans have been delayed.

Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers, said none of OC’s 23 community health providers, who run 79 clinics, have been contacted by Blue Shield. 

“We provide the solution for the equity distribution in the hardest hit communities,” Becerra said in a Wednesday phone interview. 

While county officials and community health clinics await details on the vaccine distribution changes, OC’s hospitalizations remained roughly the same.

As of Thursday, 515 people were hospitalized due to Coronavirus, including 160 people in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency. 

The virus has now killed 3,889 people, including 41 new deaths reported by the agency today. 

Newly reported deaths could stretch back weeks due to reporting delays. 

In total, the virus has now killed 3,848 people — more than seven 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.

It’s also killed more than heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and strokes do on a yearly average, respectively. 

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 23,883 people dead as of December, according to the latest available state data.

Boden-Albala and Martinez-Patterson both said the best way to increase vaccinations for the hardest hit communities is through local health clinics, like the ones Becerra represents. 

“The clinics have really worked on approaching residents and populations who are eligible to get vaccines. Not only to get the vaccines to them, but also work on the issues we worry about for vaccine hesitancy and accessibility,” Boden-Albala said. 

Martinez-Patterson said federal officials realized the local health clinics are effective and are directly allocating a small amount of vaccines to the clinics.

“That’s because the feds have realized the federally qualified health clinics are the solution to the equity problem. Unfortunately, it’s not as recognized in the State of California,” she said. 

Martinez-Patterson criticized state officials for giving multi-million dollar contracts to large, private companies and not funding the local health clinics enough. 

“I see private tech companies and insurance companies getting contracts for millions and millions of dollars and the safety net (health clinics) has to do this nearly for free,” she said. “It’s hard to keep watching all these companies get all the contracts when there’s a local community infrastructure that feeds the local economy that’s begging to be included and we’re not.” 

For more details on the COVID-19 vaccine in Orange County view our Voice of OC information page:

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:

Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data | Demographics

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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