In an effort to speed the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine to people most at risk of dying, California state officials on Wednesday announced that people 65 and over will be eligible to receive the vaccine sooner than had previously been planned.
Under new guidelines from the California Department of Public Health, people in Phase 1A of the state’s tiered system – health care workers and nursing home residents – are still eligible to receive vaccines. After those people are given vaccines, seniors 65 and older will be in the next group.
The state is setting up an online system to let people know when they are eligible to receive a vaccine, Newsom’s office announced, and how to register to receive a notification via email or text. That system is expected to launch next week.
A second state system, expected to launch several weeks after, will help counties, cities and others run mass vaccination events at stadiums, fairgrounds and other locations. It will allow eligible members of the public to schedule vaccination appointments at those events. In addition to mass vaccination events, people also will be able to go to their doctor or pharmacy to receive the vaccine as more becomes available from the federal government, Newsom’s office said.
People also can contact their doctor’s office to find out when they are eligible, given that different providers have different amounts of the vaccine.
“There is no higher priority than efficiently and equitably distributing these vaccines as quickly as possible to those who face the gravest consequences,” Newsom said in a statement. “Individuals 65 and older are now the next group eligible to start receiving vaccines. To those not yet eligible for vaccines, your turn is coming. We are doing everything we can to bring more vaccine into the state.”
The change in policy comes one day after the Trump administration announced it was reversing course. The Centers for Disease Control on Tuesday began recommending that states expand access to Covid-19 vaccines to everyone 65 and older to speed up vaccine rollout.
The Trump administration had promised that 50 million doses would be administered nationwide by the end of January through Operation Warp Speed, its vaccine program. But through Tuesday, it had delivered only 25 million doses nationwide, and just under 9 million shots had been given, according to the CDC.
The federal government’s priority system, ranked by occupation and risk, and California’s similar system, have been widely viewed as too cumbersome and slow.
As of Monday, California had shipped 2.46 million vaccine does to city and county health departments, and large health care providers like Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health and Dignity Health. But only about one third of those — 816,673 vaccine doses — had been administered statewide.
“With our hospitals crowded and ICUs full, we need to focus on vaccinating Californians who are at highest risk of becoming hospitalized to alleviate stress on our health care facilities,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health and State Public Health Officer.
There is no question that older Americans have been hit hardest by the pandemic. Of the 31,102 deaths in California since the disaster began last year, 75% have been people 65 and older, and 94% have been people 50 and older, according to state statistics.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UC-San Francisco of the new plan. “I’m pretty assured the vaccine manufacturers can ramp up to meet demand.”
COVID has not been spread evenly through California. Through Wednesday, 66% of the state’s total COVID deaths have occurred in just five of California’s 58 counties, all of them in Southern California — Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino. The nine Bay Area counties have accounted for just 10% of the statewide deaths.
Expanding the pool of people who can receive the vaccine is expected to raise new challenges. There are 6.6 million people over age 65 in California.
In Florida, after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order Dec. 23 saying anyone 65 and older could get the vaccine, along with health care workers, counties launched online registration websites. But they crashed due to a flood of interest. Phone lines set up for appointments were jammed. And seniors have sat all night in lawn chairs and cars outside hospitals, some of which announced they were administering the vaccines on a first-com-first-served basis.
On Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to require large health care providers like Kaiser, Sutter, Stanford and Palo Alto Medical Foundation to produce written plans and timelines for COVID-19 vaccine distribution by Feb. 1.
“Time is of the essence,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian. “We can’t afford to lose a month; we can’t afford to lose a week; we can’t afford to lose a single day.”
Santa Clara County asked state officials this week for 100,000 more vaccine doses but received just 6,000, said Santa Clara County Executive Dr. Jeff Smith.
“We have lots of physical capacity,” Smith said, “and not as much vaccine as we need.”
Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, a Santa Clara County health official, said the goal is to vaccinate 85% of the county residents 16 years and older — 1.5 million people — by Aug. 1. The state, he said, has similar goal of vaccinating 70% of the eligible population by Aug. 1.
“There’s a lot of challenges reaching this goal,” Fenstersheib said. “The constantly changing state and federal guidance, every single day we seem to get a different message from the state or federal government. (And) the vaccine availability is unknown.”
Under California’s tiered system, health care workers and people in assisted living facilities have priority for vaccines, in phase 1A. Seniors 75 and older had been in the next group — phase 1B, tier 1 — along with teachers, childcare workers and agriculture industry workers. People 65 and older had been in the group after that, phase 1B, tier 2, along with transportation workers like bus drivers, manufacturing workers, and people in tight, risky settings, like jails and homeless camps.
But now, in essentially moving everyone 65 and older into phase 1B, tier 1, California now joins 23 other states. Alaska now offers the vaccine to residents over age 55. Washington state is vaccinating people 50 to 69 who live in multigenerational households. West Virginia is vaccinating teachers and school staff over the age of 50.
What’s driving the changes nationally and statewide? A growing number of Americans are frustrated, said bioethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
“People are seeing too few vaccines in a tiny number of arms,” he said. “There is disappointment with the slow rollout.”
Second, new vaccines by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are debuting in February, which will add to the number available already from Pfizer and Moderna. Also, there’s a perception that logistics, not limited supplies, are the problem, Caplan added. By opening more sites – such as civic centers, baseball stadiums, and Walgreens lobbies – California can accommodate more vaccines.
Finally, Californians are watching others get vaccinated, and feel left behind, he said. “People are saying ‘I see other people getting vaccines in Florida or bribing their way to get them, and I’m 65 too or I’m high risk — so do something.”
Mercury News staff writer John Woolfolk contributed to this report.
Contributed by local news sources