Public health officials in Southern California are making a big push this week to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations and make the in-demand vaccines more widely available quickly.
To counter the sluggish pace of vaccinations in the region, officials in Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties are in the process of setting up “supersites” or “superpods” — large, well-known venues such as Disneyland and Dodger Stadium — where mass vaccinations can take place, some as early as this week. In addition to the slow vaccine distribution, Southern Californians have also taken to social media to express frustrations about the lack of information about how, when and where to get vaccinated.
Supersites to speed up vaccinations
Riverside County on Tuesday formed an Incident Management Team that will work on creating several supersites that gives them the ability to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to “thousands of people instead of hundreds of people.” Riverside, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties are only open to health care workers and patients in long-term care settings. On Tuesday, Orange County’s health officials announced that any county resident 65 and older is now eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Getting this information out, just like getting vaccines into people’s arms, has been a challenge, said Jose Arballo Jr., a spokesman for the Riverside County Department of Public Health. Right now, the only way for people to stay in the loop is to keep an eye on the health department’s website and look for the information, he said. The department is working on taking that communication to community partners such as nonprofits, businesses, homeowners associations and other groups, which have the ability to disseminate information to a wider group of people.
Arballo said the biggest challenge at first was vaccine hesitancy, but now it’s keeping up with the demand.
“We have hundreds of people on the waiting list,” he said. “We’re working on getting the people who have the right qualifications. We’re looking at nursing students, EMTs and other students we can train, who could then staff these superpods.”
Meeting the overwhelming demand
It would also help if those who are not in the current eligible tiers refrain from taking appointments or walking in to the sites, Arballo said.
“That takes spots and time away from the people who should be getting the vaccines right now, and slows down the process as well,” he said.
In Los Angeles County, health officials are planning to open five supersites to speed up vaccinations for health care workers. Officials anticipate this expansion will allow them to complete 500,000 additional vaccinations among health care workers by the end of January. Los Angeles County expects to begin vaccinations for people 65 and older by early February and for people 50 and older as well as younger individuals with underlying health conditions in late March. These tiers will also include essential workers.
Health officials are faced with the challenge to come up with a system that can efficiently and quickly deliver the vaccine to as many people as possible, said Dr. Clayton Chau, Orange County’s health officer and the director of the county’s health care agency.
“The infrastructure to provide the vaccines is the same as the people tasked with taking care of sick people — the health care system,” he said, adding that the supersites will be able to provide that much-needed infrastructure to meet vaccination goals.
County health officials have been overwhelmed by calls asking when they can get the vaccine, but Chau believes “that’s a good headache for us to have,” because it means more people are open to get the vaccine, which will ultimately help achieve herd immunity and reopen the economy.
San Bernardino County had no announcements regarding supersites as of Tuesday. But spokesman David Wert said the county is pleased with its progress so far. He said the county has received 75,900 first doses of which it has administered 38,770, calling it a “very respectable ratio.” The county has received 43,625 more vaccines for second doses, he said.
Wert said they haven’t faced any notable challenges with vaccine distribution, but that the county’s vaccination team is “discussing various strategies.”
County residents can call the COVID hotline at 909-387-3911 or visit sbcovid19.com for more information, including details about vaccination sites and how to register.
Frustrations with the system
But, getting basic information about how, when and where to get vaccinated has been frustrating for many. Teri Pearlstein, 66, of Laguna Beach, said she doesn’t know where to register or whom to contact for information.
“We need ads on television, signs on freeways and in communities, telling us what to do in plain English,” she said. “I’d drive to Long Beach if I can get a vaccine right now, but I don’t know if I can even do that. It’s beyond frustrating.”
Even those who have been able to get the vaccines speak of problems with registration and having to wait for hours to get vaccinated. Huntington Beach resident Sav Ridley said her elderly parents had to wait three hours and 20 minutes to get their shots at a local vaccination site. It took her five days to even get those appointments, she said.
Once inside her parents were made to wait in smaller rooms with about 40 others, which she says, raises concerns about infections.
“My dad said he felt safer when he waited in line than when he was inside,” Ridley said, adding that a “drive-up” system would be much safer, especially at the supersites, which are likely to be more crowded.
Orange County health officials have encouraged residents to register with the vaccine and testing management app Othena, but complaints have been piling up on social media that the app has not been working and that they are still having trouble scheduling appointments. That appears to be the only recommended way to schedule appointments right now. Only those with appointments can get vaccinated at the supersites, health officials said.
A logistical challenge
Public health officials are scrambling to get the logistics set up because while billions of dollars were allocated to develop the vaccine, only a few hundred millions were given out to health departments around the country, which was simply not enough to prepare the infrastructure for vaccine distribution, said Shira Shafir, associate professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
“The health departments have been overstretched,” she said.
But Shafir said it’s promising to see larger health departments announcing plans for supersites to help speed up the process.
“These are places like Disneyland that people know and there are clear ways to bring people in and out,” she said. “Once the health departments figure out their operations and increase capacity, we’ll start to see things improve.”