As of 10 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30, there are 13,321 cases of COVID-19 in Santa Cruz County, including 148 deaths and 11,326 recovered. For updated information on vaccine eligibility, please check the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (HSA) website.
Santa Cruz County is facing a vaccine shortage as it begins Phase 1B of its COVID-19 vaccination rollout. Like much of the country, Santa Cruz hospitals and residential care facilities are reporting insufficient doses and miscommunications with state and federal health agencies.
Santa Cruz health officials agree that massive demand alongside inefficiency at the state and federal levels are the main factors behind the vaccine shortage.
“We don’t have the amount of vaccines that we need, and that’s a supply chain issue,” said Third District County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty. “It hasn’t helped that we haven’t had an effective national or statewide strategy to provide transparency and planning into our limited vaccine distribution.”
The Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (HSA) is prioritizing the vaccination for people over 75, followed by those over 65. It has identified nearly 48,000 residents above the age of 65 who are eligible for vaccination in Phase 1B. Workers in education, childcare, food service, agriculture, and emergency services, as well as incarcerated and houseless people, are eligible.
Residents who are uninsured or have MediCal will be vaccinated by HSA clinics. Two other vaccination networks, the Federal Pharmacy Program (FPP) and Multi-County Entities (MCEs), are in charge of vaccinating workers and residents at long-term care facilities and those insured through private networks, respectively.
Vaccinations for nursing facilities
As Phase 1A comes to an end, county health officials say it is crucial to finish vaccinating those in long-term care and nursing facilities.
“Nursing homes that haven’t gotten the vaccine [yet] have been a big driver of both our case rates, our ICU beds, and unfortunately our deaths in Santa Cruz County,” said Coonerty. “There’s a real human cost to the failure to provide vaccines to that population.”
HSA Director Mimi Hall said 84 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the county have been people over the age of 70, and 66 percent are associated with residential care facilities.
Equitable Vaccine Distribution
The lack of a national plan under the Trump administration created unequal access to vaccines.
“Without any kind of national plan, we’ve seen a wide variety of the implementation of phases across counties,” said HSA Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci. “What this means is people with the means, access, and savvy can get on the internet, jump in a car, and drive two or three hours [to get vaccinated]. People with resources tend to be getting their vaccine faster than our underserved communities that just don’t have that kind of opportunity.”
The Biden administration promises to increase vaccine deliveries to states by 16 percent in the next three weeks, and professionals are hopeful vaccinations will speed up and become more accessible.
At a Jan. 22 press conference, HSA officials explained how they will be making data-driven decisions to equitably distribute the vaccine to communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
Combining data from the California Healthy Places Index (HPI) with case rates, death rates, and the California Immunization Registry, the HSA can prioritize vaccinations in the county’s hardest hit and most under-resourced communities.
The California Healthy Places Index looks at economic, education, housing, social, pollution, neighborhood, and healthcare access factors, weighted based on life expectancy at birth to compare community conditions across the state.
On Jan. 25, the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds officially opened as a drive-thru mass vaccination site for Phase 1B individuals residing in Watsonville. The site is currently administering 160 vaccines per day and will handle about 1,000 per day when vaccines become more available.
In order to balance the vaccine shortage with equity goals and state guidelines, the fairgrounds site is only accepting appointments for Phase 1B individuals who are in HPI-identified zip codes, with further priority for individuals over 75.
Vaccine Distribution Networks
The Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds is one of several sites the HSA has set up to begin Phase 1B mass vaccinations this week. The HSA is working with Salud Para La Gente and the Santa Cruz Community Healthcare Clinics to administer vaccines in this phase.
Sutter Health, Dignity Health, and Kaiser have also entered Phase 1B this week. They receive their own allocations and have their own distribution plans within statewide phase and tier guidelines.
The Federal Pharmacy Program (FPP) is a nationwide partnership with Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate healthcare workers and residents at skilled nursing and residential facilities. According to the HSA, FPP vaccination rollout has not been effective.
“There’s not a lot of transparency about how much [of the] vaccine is coming from the FPP, and in many cases the first doses were delayed longer than we would have liked,” said Dr. Ghilarducci.
A partnership with Safeway Pharmacies, who are finalizing Phase 1A vaccinations this week, is easing pressure on skilled nursing and residential facilities. Safeway Pharmacies and UC Santa Cruz are the only remaining entities in Phase 1A.
Cowell Student Health Center Medical Director Dr. Elizabeth Miller says that by the end of this week, 200 Phase 1A employees will have received their first dose. This includes healthcare workers, Molecular Diagnostic Lab staff, and testing employees.
At time of press, Dr. Miller said they do not know how many vaccines for Phase 1B will be received or when, as UCSC depends on multi-county distributor UC Health for its allocations.
Regarding this uncertainty, Dr. Miller added that the shortage will likely impact UCSC.
“The amount of vaccines we will receive will probably not be adequate for all of our Phase 1B employees and students,” said Miller, “and we have been given no date yet for receiving Phase 1B [vaccines].”
Any UCSC affiliates who are eligible under Phase 1B can get vaccinated through the university. UCSC is prioritizing vaccines for 89 employees who are over the age of 75, followed by 345 employees aged 65 to 74.
Due to the shortage and high demand for doses, Dr. Miller encouraged UCSC affiliates to seek other avenues available to them for vaccinations. The vaccine will not be available to the general public until Phase 2, currently projected to begin in the spring.