Monterey County veterans eligible for vaccine must travel to Bay Area

Peninsula Premier Admin

MONTEREY — The COVID-19 vaccine is being offered to eligible veterans through the Veterans Administration but for the estimated 17,500 veterans in Monterey County, that means at least an hours-long round trip to the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System to get an inoculation.

“I’m 86 years old this year and it’s hard for me to get there,” said Hazel Tompkins, an Army veteran from Salinas. “So I have a lady who’s going to drive me up two times to Palo Alto. It’s a hardship because I don’t drive other than in our area.”

Tompkins said she has been called by the VA Palo Alto about her eligibility and has a friend who is helping her secure an appointment for receiving the vaccine. But the octogenarian wonders why she is not able to go the Gourley VA/DoD Outpatient Clinic in Marina for the vaccine.

The outpatient clinic in Marina is part of the greater VA Palo Alto Healthcare System of which there are about 67,000 veterans enrolled. The VA Palo Alto consists of three inpatient and seven outpatient clinics. So far, it has administered 10,040 Pfizer vaccinations to veterans and its staff as of Jan. 27.

The VA Palo Alto has now begun vaccinating high-risk veterans including those 75 years and older, homeless veterans, those on dialysis, transplant and chemotherapy patients.

“The Military and Veterans Affairs Office, in tandem with the congressman’s (Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel Valley) office, are working on identifying storage and redistribution solutions with the VA to enable the Marina clinic to provide the vaccines,” said Monterey County Veterans Services officer Jason Cameron at a media briefing earlier this week.

On Thursday, Panetta sent a letter to the leadership of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, calling on the agencies to expand COVID-19 vaccine dose allocations to VA clinics and facilities outside of major population centers. The request seeks to significantly increase vaccine access and reduce travel time for the veterans.

“Currently, our local veterans have to travel to Palo Alto to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from the VA. Although I’m grateful that the VA provides the vaccine, the significant travel that our veterans must endure on multiple occasions to get the shots makes it difficult to access and at times inaccessible,” Panetta said in a press release. “I’m asking the VA, HHS, and the CDC to ensure the vaccine is equitably administered to all veterans by allocating doses to non-hub VA facilities, such as the Gourley Clinic in Marina. Such distribution would significantly increase vaccine access to veterans across the Central Coast and contribute to national efforts to defeat this pandemic.”

The Monterey County Military and Veterans Affairs Office has been “championing the issuance of the Moderna vaccine to the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System and specifically the VA/DoD clinic in Marina to more easily serve the veterans of the county,” said Cameron.

Due to the Pfizer vaccine shipment limitation of being distributed in quantities of 975 doses and storage capability challenges, vaccinations are now only being given at VA Palo Alto facilities in Menlo Park and Livermore.

Cameron said that within “the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System, the highest concentration of elderly veterans are actually in our area.”

But according to Jack Murphy, a Monterey County Military and Veterans Affairs spokesperson, of the more than 17,000 veterans in Monterey County, about 65% have not connected to the VA for medical and other benefits.

Murphy said that is part of the local challenge of getting the word out to the county’s veterans that they need to connect to the VA. Even if veterans are not enrolled, for whatever reason, or who do not receive care from the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System, they can contact the Monterey County Military and Veterans Affairs Office for help with options.

“All that have served our nation have been afforded the benefits,” said Murphy. “That’s why we exist — to advocate for the health and welfare of veterans in our area.”

The Gourley VA/DoD Outpatient Clinic in Marina would need to acquire an ultra-cold freezer for storing the Pfizer vaccine, demonstrate it could utilize the vaccine supplied with a large enough number of veterans willing to take it and receive approval from the California Department of Public Health to be a distribution site.

“We’re working on several different pieces and working with (Panetta’s) office at the federal level from the top down working with the VA, and then our office is working at the local level with the clinic to really find out what the barriers are and help knock those down,” said Cameron. “Whatever the hurdles are, we will break them down and make whatever needs to happen, happen.”

In his letter to the VA, HHS and the CDC, Panetta pointed out that the Gourley Outpatient Clinic in Marina serves 80,000 veterans of whom more than 50% are in the category of at-risk 75 years of age and above.

“The Gourley Clinic is an ideal location for a vaccine distribution site not only for the local veterans, but also for veterans outside the area who are treated at the clinic due to its position between the major population hubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles,” said Panetta in his letter. “Unfortunately, the Gourley Clinic does not have any vaccine doses to administer nor the cold storage freezers required to possess certain vaccines. In order to receive the current two dose COVID-19 vaccine, veterans who normally go to the Gourley Clinic must travel hours to alternative sites on two separate occasions.

“As you work to ensure that the COVID-19 vaccine is equitably administered to all veterans, I ask that you consider and implement a better way to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to rural, non-hub VA facilities, such as the Gourley Clinic. Such a plan would allow veterans in rural areas to conveniently obtain the vaccine without the inconvenience of hours-long travel. That type of relief provided by the VA would significantly help our veterans access the vaccine that they deserve and contribute greatly to our nation’s efforts to defeat COVID-19.”

In the meantime, the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System has a van that runs from the Gourley clinic in Marina to the VA Palo Alto.

The Monterey County Military and Veterans Affairs Office has worked with Monterey-Salinas Transit to provide different routes throughout the county to bring folks to the Marina clinic at a low or no-cost fare for veterans. It also has a partnership with the Veterans Transition Center in Marina to use its van ride program.

Cameron said the local Military and Veterans Affairs Office can help any veteran figure out what is the best solution for traveling to the VA Palo Alto to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

For more information call 831-647-7613 or visit

Contributed by local news sources

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