Orange County’s coronavirus vaccine registration program, called Othena, which was plagued by numerous glitches and outages when it rolled out early January, could soon be lost in the wash as the state moves to standardize the process. 

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The county soon will have to use the state’s coronavirus vaccine registration system when Blue Shield takes over distribution.

But concerns are being raised that the switch could slow vaccinations, especially to the hardest hit communities.

As of last week, county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said OC would likely be able to use the current registration platform, Othena. 

“The state came up with MyTurn, which is an app that functions similar to Othena. Although I’ve not had a conversation with Blue Shield … it looks like it’s not a requirement we have to use MyTurn,” Chau told county Supervisors last Tuesday at their regular meeting. 

But that was before state officials and Blue Shield representatives clarified what the distribution switch means.

After mounting statewide concerns and questions for nearly two weeks after the Blue Shield contract was announced, officials held a conference call with reporters last Friday to answer some questions about the vaccine distribution switch

During the conference call, Secretary of the state Government Operations Agency, Yolanda Richardson, said counties will have to switch to MyTurn. 

“All who vaccinate, except those in the federally qualified program, will be required to use MyTurn,” Richardson told reporters.

The Government Operations Agency is charged with oversight of Blue Shield’s distribution takeover. 

In a Monday text message, Isabele Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Community Health Centers, said none of OC’s 23 community health providers have been contacted by Blue Shield to sign contracts and get in the supply pipeline.

Contracts between vaccine providers, like community health clinics, and Blue Shield are supposed to be signed before any vaccine is shipped.

The insurance giant was supposed to take over vaccine distribution for Orange County and other parts of Southern California by the end of this week.

Becerra said the distribution switch to Blue Shield has been delayed for two weeks. 

Blue Shield was also supposed to begin taking over distribution for certain counties in the central valley last week, but the move was delayed because many of those local health departments didn’t have enough details about the plans, or even contracts in place.

The community clinics are key in closing the vaccine distribution gap because they’re able to set up smaller vaccination sites in OC’s hardest hit neighborhoods at schools and seniors centers. 

Latinos have received roughly 12% of the nearly 600,000 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. 

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

Blue Shield’s $15 million contact with the state Government Operations Agency calls for the health insurance giant to oversee the MyTurn registration services. 

“Agreement to establish and maintain registration in, and use the State Immunization Registry and MyTurn (or other appropriate Agency electronic health record interface approved by Blue Shield and the Agency) as the technology platform(s) for registering patients onto the vaccine waitlist, scheduling of COVID-19 vaccination appointments, and collection of vaccination orders and administration data from Vaccine Providers,” reads the contract

In the Friday phone conference with reporters, Blue Shield of California CEO Paul Markovich said the company has already met with over half of all the local health jurisdictions in the state. 

“The biggest thing that we’re focused on is how we create a performance managed system … so that we understand and know that from the time the federal government allocates the doses to the state, to the time they get injected into someone’s shoulder, where the vaccine is and how the vaccine’s being used,” Markovich said. 

But Markovich and Richardson gave no details on how the switch to the MyTurn app would work and if they anticipate any data merging problems. 

Markovich said Blue Shield representatives are ironing out distribution plans with local health providers and there shouldn’t be any big changes. 

“We’re sitting down and figuring out a plan with each of them to understand what their network looks like, who their critical providers are — particularly around equity,” he said. “Our ultimate hope is that there really aren’t any material changes in networks and that’s what we are looking to facilitate and do.” 

Bernadette Boden-Albala, founding dean of UC Irvine’s public health program, said she’s worried the distribution switch will hamper efforts to get vaccines to OC’s hardest hit communities. 

“It’s going to be problematic.” Boden-Albala said in a phone interview last week. “The bottom line is that we finally ironed out a lot of the wrinkles here because it took a whole community to do that, and a responsive Orange County Health Care Agency. Now we have to stop and go with this third party administrator.” 

Boden-Albala, also an infectious disease expert who sits on OC’s vaccine task force, said the move to a different vaccine registration program comes after many of Othena’s initial problems were smoothed over and she fears the sudden switch could add to potential delays. 

“Othena started with a lot of problems, but now it’s more accessible — it’s still not great … some of the northern counties have experienced this where they’re all going now to MyTurn,” she said. “None of these issues are something that can be quickly addressed overnight or in a week or so.”

OC’s coronavirus hospitalizations are dropping as vaccine distribution concerns are mounting. 

As of Monday, there were 419 people hospitalized, including 119 in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.

The virus has now killed 3,921 people — more than seven times deadlier than the flu 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.

Boden-Albala, and numerous community leaders, are clamoring for zip-code level data — similar to coronavirus infection rates — so officials can see which hard-hit neighborhoods need vaccines the most. 

“We need that data. We got a glimpse of some of that data,” she said, adding they need more current, localized data from the state. “Some of the first preliminary data we saw suggested that we did not have an equitable distribution of vaccines. Then we came up with ways … to really try to address that, which is why we have these mobile units.”  

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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