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Concerns over coronavirus vaccine supplies and needles are being raised as nearly all Californians are expected to be eligible for the shot in a couple weeks. 

“We’re ecstatic that the tiers are opening up because that means that 100% of our patients over age 16 are going to now be able to get vaccinated. The concern is will there be enough vaccines. I think that’s the question on everyone’s minds: How will we keep up with this increased demand for vaccines?” said Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of  Orange County Community Health Centers.

If vaccine supplies can keep up with the effort, she said it would prevent clinics from having to ration shots.

“It’s a relief that we will no longer have to turn people away. Because we were definitely put in positions where we had to call into the ethical question based on who to choose,” Becerra said in a Friday phone interview. “It’s a position that no provider should ever be put in.”

State health officials expect an increase in vaccine supplies, according to a Thursday news release. 

“California expects to be allocated approximately 2.5 million first and second doses per week in the first half of April, and more than 3 million doses in the second half of April. California currently receives about 1.8 million doses per week,” reads the release.

But it’s not just the vaccine supply the clinics are worried about. 

There’s also concerns they could run out of needles and syringes needed for the shots — a side effect of the mass vaccination effort.

“What’s challenging right now is actually the equipment we would use to draw vaccines — namely syringes and needles. We’re finding that there’s a backlog  on ordering at the moment,” said Dr. Jay Lee, chief medical officer at the local health clinic, Share Our Selves.  

Becerra said the Orange County Health Care Agency is helping replace those supplies as much as possible. 

“You have situations where you have the vaccine, but not the supplies to administer it. The county’s been good about helping us replace those,” she said.

But, Beerra said, if the needle and syringe supply shortage “continues to be a problem, I don’t know how they’ll keep up.” 

The clinics have been critical in getting shots to Orange County’s most impacted communities throughout Anaheim, Santa Ana, pockets of Garden Grove, Buena Park, Westminster, Fullerton and other neighborhoods. 

Using their virus testing network the clinic coalition built last year, Becerra and local health leaders quickly switched gears to vaccinations. 

Lee said the supply issue reminds him of the lack of testing supplies early in the pandemic last year. 

“We experienced something very similar at the beginning at the pandemic when testing became more available: we were running out of cotton swabs,” Lee said. “My hope is that we do a better job as a nation and a state to work on developing a better supply chain. And I do believe that as we’re working on manufacturing vaccines, we should be looking at these important and ancillary items that allow us to deliver on the promise.” 

Meanwhile, some of the coalition’s concerns have been easing about Blue Shield taking over the statewide vaccine distribution system.

The distribution switch requires hospitals, pharmacies and clinics to have a contract with the insurance giant to stay in the supply chain. 

Some of the 23 different local health clinics didn’t see contracts for weeks. 

“I have four remaining health centers that have still not received a contract. But we are in direct communication with Blue Shield and we are being assured that’s coming. I’m not as worried as much as I was initially,” Becerra said. 

Yet worries persist over having to use the state’s vaccine registration program, MyTurn.

“The double-entry system is still a concern. We have a couple of clinics who’ve gone through the training process for MyTurn. We understand that that switch is turning on April 1 and we’ll have a better understanding on what impact that might have on operations,” Becerra said. 

Some health clinic leaders, like Alexander Rossel, CEO of Families Together of Orange County, have estimated the switch to MyTurn could slow vaccination efforts by as much as 30% because he’ll have to pull staff from the frontlines to do data entry work.

Meanwhile, Orange County’s hospitalizations continue declining. 

As of Monday, 145 people were hospitalized, including 29 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

That’s the lowest it’s been in almost a year. 

The virus has now killed 4,726 people — more than eight times what the flu kills on a yearly average.

COVID deaths have now surpassed average yearly cancer deaths in OC. 

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

Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.

Last year, more than 24,400 OC residents died, according to the latest 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.

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

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