Orange County could be one step closer to becoming part of Blue Shield’s expected statewide coronavirus vaccine distribution system as county supervisors are expected to discuss a contract with the insurance giant Tuesday. 

The contract, which is required for counties, hospitals and clinics to stay in the supply pipeline, comes after a series of delays in OC and across the state. 

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State public health officials announced the distribution switch last month and said Blue Shield was expected to take over vaccine allocations by March 7. 

But that didn’t happen because of miscommunication and a lack of contracts for vaccine providers.

Concerns from local health clinics immediately surfaced following the announcement. 

Read: Will Blue Shield’s Coronavirus Vaccine Distribution Impact Community Clinics in Poorest Areas? 

Alexander Rossel, CEO of Families Together of Orange County, said he still hasn’t seen a contract for the health clinic. 

He also said Families Together is the only local clinic that’s in OC’s top 10 of vaccine providers — up there with sites like Disneyland, Soka University and the pharmacies.

According to information from Blue Shield, only two community clinics in OC have contracted with the insurance giant as of Friday, the latest available data.

Rossel said the supply chain hasn’t been disrupted, but that could soon change. 

“So far, so good because of the county not signing the contract with Blue Shield yet. So the county kept receiving the vaccines and they kept flowing to us. But they’re voting tomorrow,” Rossel said. “When this takes effect, I think we’re going to feel the heat.”

The clinics, who’ve been vaccinating the most vulnerable residents in the hardest hit neighborhoods, fear the switch could disrupt their efforts. 

The Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers and community organizations, like Latino Health Access and the Orange County Asian Pacific Islander Community Alliance, have been pushing county and state health officials to bolster vaccinations in the hard hit neighborhoods. 

Their efforts to close some of the vaccination gaps have been paying off.

The Blue Shield contract calls for Orange County to use the statewide vaccine appointment program, MyTurn. 

“Vaccine Provider shall use MyTurn and other technology platforms as directed by [the third party agreement],” reads the contract.

The vaccine registration platform switch could provide more detailed data, according to the county staff report. 

“The county Participation Agreement with Blue Shield includes using the state’s MyTurn portal for scheduling vaccination appointments and reporting data to the TPA and the state to provide daily visibility of the vaccine network’s operation,” reads the report. 

County health officer Dr. Clayton Chau has repeatedly said he’s not concerned about the software switch because the county’s vaccine application and website, known as Othena, should be able to transfer data to the state program.

It’s unclear what’s going to happen to Othena, the county’s $2 million vaccine registration program that got off to a rocky start. 

Read: OC’s Coronavirus Vaccine App Othena Could Be Irrelevant When Blue Shield Takes Over Statewide Distribution

Some health clinic leaders worry the incoming switch to MyTurn could double the work staff has to do by pulling information from their own software and plugging it into MyTurn, which could pull workers away from vaccination efforts. 

Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers, said that’s why the clinics aren’t using the county’s registration service, called Othena. 

“The same reasons why the community health centers are not using Othena. It creates a double-entry system. It’s a very inefficient way to register patients for the vaccine,” Becerra said. 

The state’s registration software presents the same concerns, she said. 

“If we had to use Othena, we would have to manually enter that information twice in one day. Because Othena is not built or there’s no interface that has been built for [electronic medical records] in the county. The same scenario plays with MyTurn,” Becerra said.

Rossel fears a slowdown once the switch to MyTurn happens. 

“We are facing about a 30% reduction of our capacity when we get to Blue Shield and MyTurn, at least. That is just a fact. Unless we just pull out of our hat another five or six employees, which we don’t have,” Rossel said.

He questioned why the state is doing a distribution switch as vaccinations are finally ramping up in the most impacted neighborhoods.

“It’s sad, to be honest — very sad. Apparently, the State of California is trying to relegate all this to Blue Shield to increase efficiency,” Rossel said. “It’s so disruptive, to be honest, to change systems in the middle of a fight, it’s like you get a new commander in the middle of the war.” 

So far, Kern County’s health department is the only public health department contracted with Blue Shield.

Hospitals have also been using their own registration systems.

Read: OC Hospitals go Their Own Coronavirus Vaccine Routes as County’s Program Continues to Struggle

It’s still unclear how Blue Shield’s vaccine distribution takeover will affect hospitals. 

Meanwhile, virus hospitalizations continue to drop. 

As of Monday, 187 people were hospitalized, including 43 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency

That’s the smallest number of residents in hospitals since early November, when the Winter wave was beginning. 

The pandemic has created the deadliest year for Orange County.

Read: Coronavirus Triggered Orange County’s Deadliest Year in Recent Times

And deaths continue increasing. 

The virus has now killed 4,607 people, including 45 new deaths reported Monday. 

That’s more than eight times the flu kills on a yearly average. 

Virus 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.

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.

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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