Some health clinics in Orange County are worried that Blue Shield’s incoming takeover of the statewide vaccine distribution system could disrupt the progress they’ve made on vaccinating the most vulnerable people in the county’s poorest neighborhoods. 

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The local health clinics, along with community organizations, have been critical in tackling the vaccination disparities.

The insurance giant is supposed to contract with community health clinics so they can stay in the vaccine pipeline.

But nobody’s seen a contract yet.

“As of now, we don’t have any contract. We’ve been reaching out to any organizations we can think of through the coalition … they assured us we’re going to have contracts, but we have no idea how many vaccines we’re going to have or when we’re going to have them,” said Alexander Rossel, CEO of Families Together of Orange County, in a phone interview last week. 

But county officials and Blue Shield representatives aren’t worried about any potential delays stemming from the distribution switch. 

“No concern from either Blue Shield or the County,” said OC Health Care Agency Director and county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau in a Wednesday email. 

In a Tuesday text message, Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers, said no contracts had been offered to any clinics.

Rossel worries that vaccines will run out before clinics get into the Blue Shield supply chain. 

“At this point my supply is for two weeks or less,” Rossel said. “For the week after, I don’t have anything lined up.” 

Chau also said the county’s contract with Blue Shield is expected to be discussed by the county Board of Supervisors on March 23. 

Blue Shield spokeswoman Erika Conner said current vaccine distributors will continue receiving their doses. 

“It’s important to note that during this month’s (March) transition period, the providers already administering the vaccine will continue to receive doses to ensure vaccines are available to as many Californians as possible equitably, efficiently and safely,” Conner said in a Wednesday email. 

She also said the insurance giant has already partnered with some vaccination providers in Orange County. 

“Today, we announced the state’s enhanced vaccine network now includes more than 1,200 vaccination sites across the state representing FQHCs, community clinics, hospitals, large medical groups, multi-county entities, pharmacies, tribal clinics and local health jurisdiction. This early group of providers and their sites also include those in Orange County,” Conner said.

Yet, of the four vaccine providers in Orange County contracted with Blue Shield, only one is a community clinic. 

Ellen Ahn, director of the Buena Park-based Korean Community Resources health clinic, said the uncertainty could hinder efforts to vaccinate more vulnerable seniors and food workers. 

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and chaos and that’s just really not good for messaging in communities that are already disproportionately affected by this,” Ahn said in a phone interview last week.  

There’s also mounting questions surrounding state and federal funding for the clinics to help bolster their vaccination efforts. 

“We’re hoping to get some money, because at this point we have not gotten any money for our vaccination efforts,” Rossel said. 

Andie Martinez-Patterson, government affairs VP for the California Primary Care Association, said she and other health clinic advocacy organizations are pushing state officials for more funding. 

In a phone interview last Thursday, Martinez-Patterson said many clinics are losing money doubling up efforts to vaccinate the most vulnerable, while still providing testing and quarantine resources. 

“We still are losing lots of money. In one health center’s experience, millions upon millions of dollars,” Martinez-Patterson said. “That is a big problem and it is not sustainable. We’re hoping to see some inroads made with the state.” 

Locally, the health clinics are scrambling to close the vaccine gap — especially in the Latino community.

Latinos have received roughly 13% of vaccines, make up roughly 35% of OC’s residents, have nearly 45% of cases and almost 38% of deaths, according to vaccine and case data from the county Health Care Agency. 

White people received 47% of the vaccines, make up over 38% of the county’s residents, have roughly 25% of cases and 37% of deaths

Last week, officials abruptly changed reopening metrics, which essentially eases the path for counties to progress on the state’s four-tiered reopening system if an additional 400,000 vaccines are given to the Golden State’s hardest hit, poorest neighborhoods.

Chau expects OC to move up in the tiers and reopen more businesses next Wednesday.

OC has four of those zip codes: two in North Santa Ana, one in West Anaheim and one in West Garden Grove.

“By vaccinating these hardest hit and hardest to access communities, we will be able to speed up our county’s reopening through the tier system. In other words, the more we vaccinate, especially people in under-resourced communities, the easier it will be for us to reopen our county,” said county Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do at a Wednesday news conference in Garden Grove.

County officials opened a new vaccination site Wednesday at Christ Cathedral, designated specifically for Garden Grove and its hardest hit residents. 

Meanwhile, hospitalizations have been decreasing across the county. 

As of Wednesday, 277 people were hospitalized, including 73 in intensive care units. 

That’s the lowest it’s been since before the massive holiday spike, which began in November. 

But deaths continue increasing, following the wave of patients who flooded OC’s hospitals over December and the first half of January. 

The virus has now killed 4,346 people, including 33 new reported deaths today. 

That’s eight times the number of people 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. 

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.

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 Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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