Roughly 4.4 million Californians now qualify for the coronavirus vaccination after state health officials updated the distribution guidelines Monday.
People with certain chronic health conditions from 16 to 64 years old are now eligible to get vaccinated.
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That means cancer patients with weakened immune systems, oxygen-dependent respiratory disease patients, people with chronic heart conditions, severely obese people and people with type 2 diabetes can now get the vaccine, according to the updated guidelines.
Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers, said the change in distribution guidelines will help them vaccinate more people.
“This is what we believe is going to increase the number of patients we can vaccinate. Up until today, we’ve been focusing on the 65 and older and health care staff and, recently, food workers. We believe the expansion of these chronic conditions will allow us to vaccinate more of the patients we care for,” Becerra said in a Tuesday phone interview.
The new eligibility group also includes people with developmental disabilities and a host of other conditions.
“We worked hard with a number of individuals represented with some representation of counties to get a list narrowed to a point where we feel like we’re focused on the most vulnerable population first,” said Secretary of the state Health and Human Services Agency, Dr. Mark Ghaly, at a Friday news briefing.
“So our hope and direction is that the counties don’t modify that part of it,” he said.
The Orange County Health Care Agency updated the distribution guidelines on its page to largely reflect a change in the state’s direction.
County officials are planning to use a combination of the vaccination super sites and smaller neighborhood clinics to vaccinate the newly eligible people, according to the Health Care Agency website.
Although it’s unclear when those vaccinations will be given — the website only states it will start in March and it remains uncertain how many more people in OC will be in the pipeline to get vaccinated.
There’s also mounting private sector options emerging to get the vaccine – mainly from medical providers.
“Beginning March 15, healthcare providers may use their clinical judgement to vaccinate individuals’ age 16-64 who are deemed to be at the very highest risk for morbidity and mortality from COVID-19,” reads the Health Care Agency website, pointing to the list of chronic health conditions.
UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, Daniel Parker, said it’s the right time to increase the eligibility pool of people to get vaccinated, but state officials need to collect more data to determine who’s actually getting the shots.
“I think they’re doing it wisely. I wish that we had a better record keeping system in place. I hope that we’ll build that up in the future. But at this point, they’re pumping them out and getting as many people as possible, which is good,” Parker said in a Tuesday phone interview.
During an Orange County Supervisors public meeting last month, county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau told supervisors the vaccine distribution data is incomplete.
Supervisor Don Wagner asked questions about the distribution data and what OC could do to close some gaps.
“There’s no right or wrong, Supervisor. Because the data is very confusing,” Chau said at the Feb. 9 meeting. “Everybody’s trying our best to reconcile our number. We believe — Orange County’s not alone — most of the counties believe the number reported in the state system is incorrect, it’s underreported.”
At this point, it could be impossible to paint a complete picture, Parker said.
“It’d be nice if there was something that was really coordinated and we had a system to record everybody who was vaccinated,” he said. “You’d like to know what proportion of your population has been fully vaccinated … since we have so many different distributors, that’s impossible to do as far as I can tell.”
Parker said knowing where the vaccines aren’t going can help officials direct efforts to get those people — often in the hardest hit communities — vaccinated quicker.
Meanwhile, as more Orange County businesses reopen after COVID-19 case rates improved following a severe winter wave, some local health experts worry cases could rise again, based on what’s happened in other parts of the world.
Andrew Noymer, UC Irvine epidemiologist and public health expert, said he’s been monitoring case increases in Europe.
“You’ll see Italy, Poland and Germany, among other countries, are starting to rise again now,” Noymer said in a Friday phone interview. “So if those countries can rise again, so can we.”
He also said he expects another wave in OC, but he’s unsure how bad it can hit.
“I cannot say that this third wave will be severe,” Noymer said. “It depends on how many people are vaccinated and it depends on whether or not the virus can escape the vaccine. So stay tuned. It’s not going to go away.”
Indoor dining, movie theaters and gyms are able to reopen at limited capacity.
But bars remain closed, although wineries and breweries can open for outdoor operations using an appointment system for customers.
Yet many bars around Orange County have been opened for indoor and outdoor operations for months — some even advertise on Facebook.
It’s unclear if anybody is enforcing the state reopening guidelines.
Meanwhile, hospitalizations continue to slowly decrease.
As of Tuesday, 216 people were hospitalized, including 62 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
Deaths have been steadily increasing, but no new deaths were reported today and the agency website states there’s maintenance issues on the state servers that artificially lowered new cases.
Although it didn’t say if death counts were affected or not.
The virus has now killed 4,486 people, including 21 new deaths reported today.
That’s more than eight times the flu kills on a yearly average.
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.
The virus is now in the ballpark of average annual cancer deaths.
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.
Parker, like Noymer, also worries another wave could hit.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if we see some kind of wave next Fall. Peering into the crystal ball, one thing that could happen is people get excited this Summer and drop their guards,” Parker said.
And like his colleague, Parker said there’s also economic considerations for the reopenings to take into account.
“Trying to balance out these economic issues is difficult. The epidemiologist in me says no, don’t go to the movie theater or eat inside of a restaurant. But I have to realize I’m not an economist and there’s people’s livelihoods severely affected by it too,” Parker said.
He said people shouldn’t get too relaxed by the reopenings and keep following public health protocols as much as possible in order to prevent another spike, which could force another shutdown.
“We have to balance this out and realize people’s livelihoods at stake.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio