Cars and socially spaced crowds amassed at Disneyland’s Toy Story parking lot Wednesday, Jan. 13, as hundreds queued for coronavirus vaccines at Orange County’s first mass-vaccination site, a pivotal step toward county leaders’ new goal of delivering 1.5 million shots per month.
The tented site’s opening marks a new chapter in Orange County’s battle against the coronavirus as people age 65 and older, especially those who have underlying health conditions that might make them more susceptible to a bad case of COVID-19, can be vaccinated against the disease at the outset of the next, broader stage of the county’s vaccination campaign, called “Operation Independence.” Frontline health care workers are also still being vaccinated.
The Super POD (point-of-distribution) site in Anaheim off Katella Avenue and the 5 freeway is the first of four planned to be set up around Orange County in coming weeks that are just one prong of a momentous push by public officials and private health providers to immunize enough Orange County residents to begin lifting lockdown rules and return to some semblance of normal life by July 4.
“The end of COVID-19 is in sight,” Dr. Clayton Chau, OC Health Care Agency director and county health officer, said Wednesday against a backdrop of long white tents and longer lines of masked people awaiting vaccines.
As Orange County adds to its limited stock of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, the Super POD structure will allow for easy scaling up to meet demand, Chau said.
While officials are aware demand for vaccines is brimming, there will be limited appointment slots to begin with through the county’s Othena.com, a phone app and website appointment system developed by the county in partnership with CuraPatient.
Officials sought to make clear that the county’s campaign is not the only option for vaccination and advised now eligible residents they can contact their own doctors and health providers.
“I want to make it clear, because there’s a lot of confusion, that the county is not the only health entity that can provide vaccines. In fact, 80% of vaccine doses provided were provided (by the state) directly to the different health care systems,” said Andrew Do, chairman of Orange County’s Board of Supervisors.
Chau said the Health Care Agency recently sent a letter to private, “certified” health networks, alerting them the county was poised to move forward to the 65 and older cohort and “encouraging them to follow us.”
The new leg in the race to administer shots has not been without confusion, as many health care professionals and seniors who said they should have been able to make appointments, either using the county’s new Othena system or through their own doctor’s office, reported issues doing so. Long lines have been seen at other, smaller distribution sites already in place.
The undertaking is just moving into second gear, county leaders and health officials said Wednesday, asking for the public to forgive any hiccups while outlining ambitious targets for the months ahead to meet the Independence Day finish line.
“We have the plan, the facilities, the staffing and the will to do at least 1.5 million vaccinations per month,” said Fourth District Supervisor Doug Chaffee, who called on President-elect Joe Biden to send Orange County 4 million shots to meet the ultimate goal of inoculating 2 million people with both doses – an estimate more than a million people short of the county’s population to account for vaccine hesitancy and other obstacles.
People are told not visit the Disneyland or other previously operating vaccination sites without having an appointment. Officials said people without appointments will be turned away and are just slowing down the system.
“Until we get more vaccines, I would ask for your patience and allow vulnerable seniors with chronic health conditions the opportunity to get vaccinated first,” Chau said.
Deanne Thompson, spokeswoman for the county’s vaccination rollout team, said of 60,000 people who registered via Othena on Tuesday night, 10,000 appointments were scheduled for the Anaheim site’s opening window of Wednesday through Friday. The goal this week was to administer 3,000 doses per day, she said.
“Six-times as many people are disappointed as got appointments. That is not because the system didn’t work. It’s because there’s no vaccine,” Thompson said.
“As soon as vaccine supply is replenished, additional appointment windows (will) open up,” Thompson said. “This whole structure now is dependent on supply. We know what we’re doing, we just need vaccines.”
Along with working on agreements for four more Super POD sites, county officials are planning smaller “mobile” PODs for certain hard-hit neighborhoods.
The county’s ultimate target is 7,500 to 8,000 vaccinations per day per Super POD site; ideally, all five sites together would administer 40,000 doses daily, Chau said.
Orange County and the health networks that operate within it have been allocated a combined 170,000 doses, Chau said during Wednesday’s press conference.
The Health Care Agency itself has 42,000 doses on hand, around half of which arrived Monday, he said. The agency expects another shipment of 35,000 vaccines next week.
All care providers in Orange County so far have administered about 56,000 vaccines, according to the Health Care Agency’s latest figures ending Friday, Jan. 8.
Public health officials at the local, state and federal levels in recent days have decided to jump-start the next phase of the national vaccine rollout as the pool of those at the frontline of health care wanting the vaccine starts to run dry while older people who are more likely to be hospitalized with the coronavirus continue to strain health systems amid the pandemic’s worst surge yet.
On Wednesday, Disneyland’s parking lot was the shuttered theme park’s main attraction as visitors with appointments drove through an entrance, parked, walked up to a check-in station and waited in line. Once vaccinated, they were directed to a recovery and observation tent, where they were monitored by medical staff for allergic reactions and other side affects.
The process averaged about half an hour; some waited in their car until called.
Such a large operation might have required months of planning, Do said, but county staff, the county Fire Authority, Disney and Anaheim staff put together the program in days.
Do also implored the public not to “crash the system” by overloading Othena or showing up to vaccination sites without appointments.
“While we still face difficult months ahead, these vaccines, with more coming online in the near future, we will triumph and overcome the biggest challenge in our generation.”
A Laguna Woods couple, Don and Deanna Ader, ages 78 and 75, was among Day 1 recipients at the Disneyland parking lot.
“It was painless and ready to go; it’s a great service they’re providing,” Don Ader said. “No side affects for me and my wife.”
The couple’s daughter and son-in-law helped them make reservations online Tuesday night, he said.
After parking, the Aders said they were in line for a little over an hour. Don Ader, who has multiple sclerosis and other medical conditions, said an Anaheim firefighter helped him through the line in a wheelchair.
“Today marks an important step in combating COVID-19,” Do said, “and reclaiming our lives and livelihoods from the grip of the pandemic here in Orange County.”
Staff writer Alicia Robinson contributed to this report.