A new statewide shift in COVID vaccination strategy is coming, at some point, as public health officials prepare for a statewide reopening in less than three weeks, when nearly all virus restrictions will be lifted.
Gov. Gavin Newsom was set to announce “major new efforts” to vaccinate more people on Wednesday, ahead of the June 15 reopening.
“California estimates there are now 12 million people who are eligible and have not taken their shot to protect their health and the well-being of their communities,” reads Tuesday news release about the vaccine expansion.
But there’s no details as of Wednesday because the afternoon new conference in Los Angeles was cancelled following a shooting in San Jose that killed eight people, according to various news reports.
State officials didn’t answer questions about when the plan will be made public.
It’s unclear when the state’s new vaccination strategy will be rolled out as roughly 49% of all Californians have been fully vaccinated — far below the herd immunity threshold of at least 70%.
Locally, Orange County’s public health officials are moving to a neighborhood clinic approach to bolster vaccination rates.
About 44% of OC’s residents are fully vaccinated, according to data from the county Heatlh Care Agency.
The county is slated to close its vaccination supersites by June 6 following a steep drop in demand, although there’s been a recent uptick because children as young as 12 years old are now eligible for the shot.
Orange County Health Officer Dr. Clayton Chau credited pediatricians for helping get children vaccinated.
“I’m happy that our pediatricians in Orange County have stepped up,” Chau told OC Supervisors during Tuesday’s public meeting.
Numerous health clinic leaders have recently told Voice of OC they’ve also seen an uptick in children getting vaccinated and say the reasons they hear from the kids range anywhere from Summer vacation plans to being able to hang out with their friends.
In Orange County, a parent must be with their child in order for kids to get vaccinated — a rule instituted by Chau.
“I feel strongly that any medical procedure given to a minor must involve an adult,” Chau said at a virtual panel hosted by Chapman University earlier this month.
Meanwhile, there’s outstanding questions and concerns about funding and contracts for local health centers, community organizations and public health departments from the state down to the local level.
Newsom was criticized by the Health Officer Association of California for not including their $200 million ongoing funding in his budget proposal he submitted to the legislature a couple weeks ago.
“Califirnia’s local health departments will continue to be underfunded, under resourced and under staffed,” said Kat De Burgh, the association’s executive director, in a news conference earlier this month.
She said public health officers are calling for “$200 million annually in state general funds to begin to rebuild local health infrastructure.”
Chau expressed his frustration at the lack of new state funding for local health departments.
“I would have liked to participate in the conversation ahead of time to understand the reason why local public health departments infrastructure building fund was not included,” Chau said in a text message last week. “We (county health officers) have been advocating for it.”
In Orange County, a $20 million contract proposal to expand neighborhood and community vaccination clinics was abruptly delayed Tuesday during the OC Board of Supervisors meeting.
Health Care Agency officials have said there’s currently no businesses or organizations considered to be brought in under the umbrella contract for up to $20 million.
County officials haven’t answered questions about why the contract was delayed.
Some of the community clinics have been raising concerns about potentially being left out of the vaccine expansion because they said nobody from the county contacted them.
But Supervisor Don Wagner publicly assured clinics they’re not being left behind during Tuesday’s meeting.
While the $20 million expansion wasn’t discussed because it was continued until June 8, Chau said the county’s overall goal is to get walk-up clinics for residents throughout all parts of the county.
“Our goal is to have at least 30 events per week to offer no barrier at all, whatsoever, for our community who want it,” he said.
Some local nonprofit clinics, like Families Together of Orange County, are hurting for funding while their staff are stretched thin with both vaccinations and regular medical care for their patients.
Cassie Rossel, spokeswoman for Families Together, said the little funding they’re currently getting from state and federal sources is backfilling losses over the past year.
“We went into this fight without the certainty we would get funding for this,” Rossel said in a Tuesday phone interview. “We’re trying to balance it all out at the moment, but obviously the pandemic made vaccines very important for the past few months. We’ve put a lot of resources there.”
She said the clinic has distributed more than 40,000 shots.
That makes it one of the top vaccine providers in OC — ahead of some hospitals and pharmacies.
The communities in Garden Grove and Tustin that Families Together serve were hit hard by the virus early in the pandemic and the clinic had to step in to help lower positivity rates through testing and education.
The scenario has played out with numerous nonprofit local clinics and community organizations throughout the county over the past year.
Rossel also criticized Newsom’s proposed budget for leaving out public health departments.
“Leaving out funding for health departments for normal services — it seems like that’s a very dangerous pattern. Because when you forget about health care, you end up having the lack of resources we had when the pandemic hit,” she said.
While public health officials, clinics, hospitals, pharmacies and community organizations across the state try to get more people vaccinated ahead of the June 15 reopening, hospitalizations and deaths have smoothed out.
Meanwhile, in Orange County, the number of people being hospitalized for Covid keeps trending down.
A total of 66 people were hospitalized as of Wednesday, including eight in intensive care units, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has now killed 5,055 people — more than nine times the flu kills on a yearly average.
During OC Supervisors’ COVID update on Tuesday, Chau said deaths have dramatically slowed down in recent weeks.
“In terms of death rate this last month, from April 23 to now, we had eight people pass away from COVID,” Chau said. “For comparison, Jan. 5 was the day where we had the highest number of deaths throughout the pandemic at 69 people.”
January was the deadliest month in Orange County, when the virus killed over 1,200 people.
Chau said vaccines already prevented a Spring wave from happening.
“Everybody was expecting a third surge in April and it didn’t happen because we went so fast in getting everybody vaccinated,” he told county supervisors.
COVID deaths 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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio