Several million more Californians qualified for a coveted COVID-19 vaccine shot beginning Monday, but limited supplies mean they and some previously eligible residents may have a hard time making appointments any time soon.
The state on Monday expanded vaccine eligibility to homeless people, transit workers and the largest category — people ages 16 to 64 “who are deemed to be at the very highest risk for morbidity and mortality from COVID-19.”
The list of “high risk” conditions and disabilities that qualify a person for the next phase of vaccination includes cancer, pregnancy, stage 4 kidney disease, oxygen-dependent lung disease, Down syndrome, sickle cell disease, coronary artery disease, severe diabetes, Type 2 diabetes and a weakened immune system from a solid organ transplant.
This latest phase of California’s vaccine rollout adds 4 million to 6 million people to the current list of vaccine-eligible Californians, bringing the total to 17 million to 19 million — or about half the state. And it comes as California continues seeing a sustained decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, allowing 13 more counties to enter the red tier for reopening in the past two days.
But based on current allocation projections, it will take quite some time to meet the demand for more vaccines.
In Santa Clara County, for instance, vaccine appointments available through the county health system have been fully booked for more than a week. New first-dose appointments could not be made last week, nor will people be able to make any this week, according to a county spokesperson.
The county could not say when it expects to reopen first-dose appointment bookings, only that it “will depend on supplies provided each week.”
San Mateo County this week will be running four days of clinics solely for second-dose appointments and offering limited first-dose clinics for homeless and incarcerated individuals, along with targeted outreach by the Health Plan of San Mateo to its members and San Mateo Medical Center to other eligible patients.
A first-dose clinic scheduled for Saturday at the San Mateo County Event Center could vaccinate 2,300 people, with priority given to essential occupations such as teachers and transit workers and some residents who qualify under the at-risk categories, according to spokesperson Preston Merchant.
Sutter Health, which earlier this month had to cancel 95,000 second-dose vaccine appointments because of its supply shortage, is prioritizing rescheduled second-dose appointments for all those that were canceled. First-dose appointments, including for those deemed high-risk, have been largely placed on standby for now.
“Where our supply or county allocations enable us to do so, we have been open to first dose new appointing but at this time, we are still not broadly open to new first dose appointments,” a Sutter Health spokesperson wrote in a statement.
Kaiser Permanente, which is vaccinating both members and non-members, announced Monday that “as supply allows,” it’s beginning to reach out and offer appointments to members 16 to 64 who are at high risk of complications if they get COVID-19 based on their medical history.
Meanwhile, in Contra Costa County, residents in high-risk groups appear to have a better chance than those elsewhere of making appointments.
Federally-qualified community health centers in Contra Costa, such as Lifelong Medical and La Clinica, received 14,000 doses of vaccines Monday from the federal government. Officials are reserving about 80% of appointments for second doses and offering the remaining 20% for first doses.
As of Monday, the county was scheduling appointments for one week out but still had thousands of openings, according to spokesperson Scott Alonso.
“We want to underscore for folks interested in receiving the vaccine to sign up anywhere and everywhere you can and not giving up if it takes time,” Alonso said.
Aside from county health departments, eligible Californians can seek vaccination appointments through their health care provider, local pharmacies, community pop-up clinics or the state’s My Turn website at myturn.ca.gov.
Under the latest phase, people are essentially being asked to abide by an honor system of sorts when they sign up for appointments.
New state guidance released Friday allows individuals with underlying conditions or disabilities to simply declare they’re eligible without having to disclose their condition or display any sort of proof. Though some have raised concerns that the system could be abused, disability advocates say it will eliminate additional burdens that could make it harder for some people, especially those with intellectual disabilities, to access an appointment.
Charise Hill, 34, of Sacramento, has been advocating local and state officials to prioritize people with high-risk conditions and disabilities for months. Hill, who uses the pronouns they/them, is diagnosed with axial spondyloarthritis — a condition of inflammatory arthritis that is typically treated with medications known to suppress the immune system — and has barely left their home the past year.
“I have a lot of mixed emotions,” Hill said in an interview Monday. “It’s exciting that we’re finally here, but it’s also filled with leftover anger for the state refusing for so long to prioritize us as they should have done from the start.”
Using the state’s MyTurn website, Hill secured a first-dose appointment on Thursday. Fearing they could be turned away even though the state is letting people self-attest, Hill has also obtained a doctor’s letter declaring their eligibility.
“It has been quite confusing navigating this whole thing, trying to figure out when we actually get to schedule, who is qualified and will I have to prove my disability somehow?” Hill said. “Our work is not done until everyone knows they’re eligible and how to get an appointment.”