August 4, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Stop sitting on COVID vaccine, California. People are dying

Federal officials agreed on Tuesday to release the nation’s entire stock of COVID-19 vaccination doses for immediate distribution — something that President-elect Joe Biden and a group of governors including Gov. Gavin Newsom have urged.

That’s great. Vaccines only work when they are used.

The federal government had been holding back half its vaccine stock in reserve to ensure that there were enough second doses to go around. (The two COVID-19 vaccines currently used in the U.S. require two shots, three or four weeks apart.) But the steady ramp-up of production has made federal officials more confident there will be plenty to go around in coming weeks. Indeed, at this point, supply exceeds demand, according to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

It may sound like a good problem to have. It’s not. The reason there is a surplus is that many states have been slow to use up the vaccinations distributed already. That includes California, which has done a particularly poor job getting its residents vaccinated in a timely fashion. Only one-third of about 2.5 million doses shipped to the state have made it into people’s arms.

That’s worrisome. What’s worse is that part of the new federal strategy to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine more quickly includes a retooled allocation formula that penalizes states that don’t use up the doses they already have. Previously, the allocation was based on population. The new formula will take into account the population of people 65 and older as well as whether a state has been using the doses it has already received. In other words, states need to use it or lose it.

In California, there was already an urgent need to speed up the lumbering vaccination program. The state leads the nation in COVID-19 cases and deaths. It’s unconscionable to allow lifesaving vaccinations to sit unused and even go wasted while people are dying. Now the feds have raised the stakes even higher.

We’re glad to see that Gov. Newsom recognizes that the process must be sped up and has pledged to reach 1 million doses by the end of the week. To that end, the state is allowing counties a tiny bit more flexibility within the first tier and is opening mass vaccination centers throughout the state. We were glad to see that Dodger Stadium will be one of the vaccination supercenters. The city of Los Angeles has been operating a COVID-19 testing center there since May and has the procedures and expertise to shift to effectively administering vaccines. City officials expect it will be able to reach 12,000 vaccinations a day.

But whether the city can reach that potential depends much on what state officials do now. Azar said a major barrier to a quick U.S. rollout of the vaccine has been overly prescriptive rules by states that are focusing only on front-line healthcare workers. California has crafted a complicated system for vaccine distribution that puts entire groups of workers ahead of some groups at higher risk of death. On Tuesday, California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly acknowledged that the focus on equity in the guidelines has led to delays in the vaccine rollout.

We applaud the goal of equity, but it may be time for the state to throw out its playbook and focus on getting as many people protected as possible.

One way to do it is to open eligibility to anyone over age 65 or who has a documented health condition that makes them more vulnerable to COVID complications. That’s what Operation Warp Speed officials recommended on Tuesday as they announced the release of more vaccine. The work group that developed California’s vaccination guidelines will consider this change, Ghaly said. California recently allowed counties a bit of flexibility within the first tier, so that people 75 and older and people designated in the broad work categories, like teachers and farmworkers, can be included, but it’s not mandatory.

This is a make-or-break moment for California — and very possibly for Newsom. He is facing a serious recall effort; if he can’t fix the vaccine rollout, it will only give his opponents more ammunition.