The COVID-19 vaccine superstation near Petco Park will close yet again on Saturday due to a severe shortage of doses from Massachusetts biotech company Moderna.
UC San Diego Health operates the site, and CEO Patty Maysent told The San Diego Union-Tribune that the closure will last through the weekend and into Tuesday, meaning the location will reopen on Wednesday at the earliest.
Anyone with an appointment during that time will get a message through MyChart, the health system’s electronic notification portal, and will be automatically rescheduled as soon as UCSD knows more vaccine is on the way. For now, Maysent says, the plan is to shift all appointments back by four days, but the actual delay could be longer (or a bit shorter) depending on supply.
“It’s really tough,” she said. “Giving vaccine is the antidote to the worst burnout you can imagine. It’s been hard on everybody. In particular, it’s hard on patients.”
The health system has been in contact with state and county officials, searching for any doses it can get — including doses in other counties that aren’t quickly going into arms. Maysent added that on Friday, UCSD moved more than 6,000 doses from its own supply to the Petco Park site and has used more than 10,000 of its own doses to run the superstation over the past few weeks.
But the university is still moving forward with plans to use its supply, which it receives separate from the county as part of the University of California system, to immunize staff.
“In accordance with State of California guidelines for vaccine eligibility, UC San Diego’s RIMAC Vaccine Super Station is vaccinating all UC San Diego employees,” reads an internal email sent Friday afternoon shortly before news of the Petco Park site closure. “UC San Diego Health has allocated 10,000 appointment spaces for employees to vaccinate at RIMAC over the next 10 days.”
That doesn’t sit well with some within the university — like Alex, a UCSD graduate student who requested that the U-T only use his first name. When he first received a MyChart notification that he was eligible to get vaccinated, he couldn’t quite believe it.
“I was completely dumbfounded. I did not understand that at all. A lot of us thought it was a glitch at first, so we weren’t signing up,” he said.
He’s still having a hard time understanding why he was able to get his shot, as he’s healthy, in his 20s and does all of his graduate research from his off-campus residence. Alex says the only reason he got the vaccine was because he assumed the dose offered to him would otherwise have been wasted.
“There has been no sort of communication. It’s just, ‘Do this, do this.’ And when it appears to contradict county guidelines, we’re not explained to that it doesn’t,” he said. “I got my first vaccine before any teachers did. And I feel like that’s not right.”
A UCSD spokesperson confirmed the internal email regarding vaccination at RIMAC Arena, adding that the university was “directed by the state to vaccinate this group.” She also pointed out that the appointments referenced in the memo are all for Pfizer vaccine; the Petco Park site runs exclusively on Moderna vaccine. Alex confirmed that he received the Pfizer vaccine.
This will be the third closure for the downtown superstation, which has immunized more than 119,000 San Diegans — about two out of every nine people who’ve been vaccinated in the county.
Other superstations and smaller sites scattered throughout the region will continue to operate, according to county spokesperson Mike Workman. And locations that use the Pfizer vaccine are continuing to offer first dose appointments, as the drug company’s supply flow has been smoother than Moderna’s lately.
The closure marks an abrupt reversal from the optimism county officials projected during the weekly coronavirus briefing. COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have continued to fall, with the county drawing closer to the return of outdoor high school sports — and, soon after, limited indoor dining and gym use.
“This is one of the first times I feel like we’re coming to you with a series of things that are generally good news,” said Supervisor Fletcher at the start of the Wednesday briefing.
That good news included an announcement that San Diegans working in emergency services; childcare and education; and food and agriculture would be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine starting Saturday.
About 500,000 people fall into these groups, from farm workers to security staff to day care providers.
Many of these people won’t have to hunt for their own appointments and will be inoculated through targeted outreach programs unaffected by the closure of the Petco Park site. For instance, Scripps Health is helping immunize law enforcement personnel and still plans to run a vaccination clinic at Scripps Memorial Hospital on Monday.
And this weekend, Sharp HealthCare will partner with California Schools Voluntary Employees Benefits Association (VEBA) to immunize 1,500 K-12 teachers and staff at the health system’s superstations in La Mesa and Chula Vista. VEBA and the county’s Office of Education are gradually rolling out vaccine to school staff in districts that are open or plan to reopen, and prioritizing doses to schools in zip codes hardest hit by the pandemic.
The county said on Thursday that soon-to-be eligible San Diegans who aren’t in targeted outreach programs can schedule appointments at the more than 20 vaccine sites scattered throughout the county.
Alyssa Sepinwall’s experience tells her otherwise. Because the CSU San Marcos professor does not teach at the K-12 level, she falls into the category of educators who need to schedule appointments at county-run sites or local pharmacies.
“The county system (not to mention all the pharmacies) won’t let me make an appointment today for any time after tomorrow since I’m not eligible to use the databases yet,” she said in an email on Friday.
County spokesperson Workman said the state’s online signup system, MyTurn (myturn.ca.gov), didn’t “keep up” with the change in eligibility, and that Sepinwall and others should be able to sign up starting Saturday.
Finding an appointment won’t be easy, as the closure of the Petco Park superstation underscores a frustrating fact: Vaccine demand continues to outpace supply.
The county’s current supply is prioritized for San Diegans who need their second doses, as it takes two shots of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to maximize immunity against the coronavirus.
According to the county’s vaccine dashboard, as of midday Friday, around 321,000 San Diegans have gotten their first shot but still need their second dose. Until they’ve gotten both shots, many of those in the newly eligible groups will have a tough time booking appointments.
The timeline for completing second doses, of course, depends on vaccine supply. It’s unclear when the county’s next batch of Moderna vaccine will arrive. On Wednesday, Fletcher said the county is lucky to know how much vaccine is coming in three days — let alone the three-week projections that President Joe Biden promised states and territories.
There’s been considerable confusion around precisely how many doses the county has on hand. On Friday, Times of San Diego reported that the county has nearly 100,000 doses available to administer and had recently received a sizable shipment of new doses. But Workman told The San Diego Union-Tribune that the county received no such shipment, and that there are already appointments for all the ‘available’ doses noted on the county’s dashboard.
In other words, that supply is spoken for.
Other local health systems are struggling, too. Scripps Health operates vaccine clinics for its own patients and operates the Del Mar Fairgrounds superstation. But it’s hard to sustain those efforts without a steady flow of vaccine, says Dr. Ghazala Sharieff, the health system’s chief medical officer for clinical excellence and experience.
“How do you plan for something when you’re not allowed to have any leftover (doses) but then you don’t know what you’re going to get the next week?” Sharieff said. “I don’t care what you’re going to give me — just give it to me ahead of time, then I can plan every day and be a little more logical.”
On Friday, the county reported 662 new coronavirus infections, 12 hospitalizations and 11 COVID-19 deaths. Those numbers are consistent with a gradual slowing of the pandemic’s spread, but public health officials warn that recent gains won’t be secure until the vast majority of the public has been vaccinated.
U-T staff writer Paul Sisson contributed reporting.