Eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine expanded to all individuals 16 and older earlier this month, intensifying the push by state officials to get residents vaccinated within President Joe Biden’s target for all adults to be vaccinated by the end of May.
“We have an enormous opportunity in the next six to eight weeks to run the 100-yard dash,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said to reporters at a news conference after receiving his vaccine on a vaccination site. “We’re this close.”
According to the state’s vaccination data tracker, California has administered 30,209,999 doses as of May 1. Approximately 325,723 average doses are administered per day. 39.3% of California residents have been fully vaccinated, with 19.6% partially vaccinated.
Orange County has administered approximately 2,531,590 doses as of May 1, preceded by Los Angeles County and San Diego County for most vaccinations.
The state’s vaccination rollout has been utilizing a “Vaccine Equity Metric” (VEM) that gauges priority for the distribution to certain zip codes based on factors such as race, ethnicity and age in addition to other conditions that shape county health like housing, transportation and education. Based on these metrics, each zip code is sorted into one of four quartiles that indicate general community health conditions.
Since the expansion of vaccine eligibility, the number of fully vaccinated individuals in each VEM quartile has been on a steady incline with weekly dose allocation remaining relatively equal among the four quartiles.
Currently, about 29.6% of individuals in the least healthy Quartile 1 have been fully vaccinated while 47% of individuals in the most healthy Quartile 4 have been vaccinated. Quartile 1 accounts for approximately 8,051,741 California residents while Quartile 4 accounts for approximately 7,584,050 residents.
With the expansion of vaccine eligibility, concerns about vaccine shortages have been raised by many county officials. Issues such as a lack of supplies to administer vaccine doses and the amount of doses create a barrier for the vaccine rollout to meet the increased demand, according to public health experts like Share Our Selves Chief Medical Director Dr. Jay Lee.
“What’s challenging right now is actually the equipment we would use to draw vaccines — namely syringes and needles,” Lee said to the Voice of OC. “We’re finding that there’s a backlog on ordering at the moment.”
Experts have also criticized California’s approach to vaccine distribution, stating that the campaign is overly complicated with partnerships with various third-party providers.
In a conversation with the New York Times, UC San Diego Health Chief Information Officer Dr. Christopher Longhurst noted issues with the deals between the state and health care providers. He said that these deals have added to the state’s bureaucracy and hindered the collaboration between public health departments and health systems.
One of these deals includes a $15 million contract between Blue Shield of California and the state government to coordinate and administer the COVID-19 vaccine to its 40 million residents. Blue Shield of California CEO Paul Markovitch was enlisted to help with the statewide testing strategy last spring — an effort that was also criticized by public health experts for being ineffective.
The contract, which was signed Feb. 12, gave the insurance company a no-bid contract to develop and manage the vaccination campaign as a “third-party administrator,” as well as facilitate vaccine provider credentialing and dose allocation.
“The transition to a vaccine allocation process overseen by Blue Shield was unwelcomed by county leaders and health systems alike and continues to operate with very little transparency,” Longhurst said.
Critics of the deal claim that Newsom’s decision was politically motivated given his long-standing financial relationship with the insurance company dating back to his term as the mayor of San Francisco. Since 2005, Blue Shield has contributed nearly $23 million to his various campaigns and special causes.
Many officials have also criticized the state’s failure to achieve equity in the vaccine rollout due to the state’s large populations of vulnerable groups and sharp divides in the economic and health status of its residents.
According to the state vaccine tracker, approximately 40% of white residents across the state have been fully vaccinated while other minority groups have lower rates of vaccination as of May 1. Approximately 21.4% of the Latino population, which is the largest ethnic demographic in the state, are reportedly fully vaccinated; this accounts for about 2,452,831 residents.
In Orange County, approximately 440,735 white residents are fully vaccinated, while 11,976 Black residents, 50% of Asian American residents and 233,698 Latino residents have received both doses as of May 1.
Newsom attempted to address this disparity through the allocation of more doses to lower VEM quartile zip codes. However, many advocates for impacted groups said that this effort has still not been enough to close the gap.
“Unfortunately, we are not seeing progress in closing that gap so that’s something we really want to see the state look into more to better understand why we’re not seeing a change over time there,” California Pan-Ethnic Health Network Executive Director Kiran Savage-Sangwan said to CNN. “Because we would expect one given where we have put a significant share of the does.”
Experts have acknowledged the state’s well-meaning equity efforts but consider them not enough to address the nuanced concerns of Black and Latino Californians.
“Most things in health care and dare I say public health are geared toward the majority population,” UC San Francisco Community Engagement Expert Dr. Kim Rhoads said to the New York Times. “They’re not intentionally designed to address the issues in Black and brown communities.”
Issues such as language, technology, transportation, documentation and general misinformation have created barriers for Black and Latino communities to access the vaccine, despite being among the hardest hit by COVID-19.
Other experts, including USC Equity Research Institute Director Dr. Manuel Pastor, have said that the state failed to consider essential hourly workers, which largely consist of minority groups, in vaccination plans since many are unable to take time off to accommodate vaccination appointments.
“All of the systems in place are relying on a good internet connection, a printer and the wherewithal to know that these vaccines are available,” Get Out the Shot: Los Angeles Co-founder Elizabeth Schwandt said to CNN. “Even the saviest of people around us were struggling, so we knew there was going to be a huge gap.”
Additional information regarding vaccine eligibility and vaccination appointments is available at the official California Coronavirus COVID-19 Vaccine Response website.
Ellie Zhang is a City News Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Danielle Dawson is a 2020-2021 City News Co-Editor. She can be reached at email@example.com.