Los Angeles Falling Behind In Preparations For Distribution Of COVID-19 Vaccine; Largest Public Health Effort In L.A. History Involves “Guesswork”

Tom Tapp
·5 min read

Distributing the COVID-19 vaccines now being developed is shaping up to be the largest and most complex public health effort in Los Angeles County history, and concerns are growing that officials are already falling behind, it was reported on Friday.

There are two vaccines expected to apply for emergency approval from U.S. regulators. The first, made by Pfizer, was submitted for approval Friday. The second, from Moderna, is expected to be submitted within weeks. Both appear to be about 95% effective.

About 25 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected to be available by year’s end, according to the Associated Press.

Between Pfizer and Moderna there will likely be vaccine enough for 25 million-30 million people each month by early 2021. That’s according to Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser of the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed in the Washington Post.

Now, government bureaucrats must figure out how to quickly and fairly distribute the life-saving COVID-19 medication. For L.A. County, this effort has already included acquiring 16 ultra-cold storage freezers to be installed across the region, the Los Angeles Times reported Friday morning. The freezers cost between $10,000-$15,000 and can store tens of thousands of doses at the required temperatures, which for the Pfizer vaccine is at or below (minus)-70 degrees Celsius, according to NPR. The Moderna vaccine needs to be kept at (minus)-20 degrees Celsius.

Another question is where the vaccine will go from there. The county has already struggled with another essential element of the pandemic response: providing widescale coronavirus testing. Distributing the vaccines — which each require ultra-cold storage and two separate shots to be effective — safely and equitably is an even more vital task. Some officials have already expressed their concerns, the Times reported.

County Supervisor Janice Hahn recently called the county’s preliminary plans “too vague.” She said they failed to address key logistical issues, such as how the county would store the Pfizer vaccine at -70 C. Supervisor Sheila Kuehl wondered how logistically the county would keep doses of the vaccine cold enough during transport.

Supervisor Hilda Solis wanted to see more explanation for how the county would equitably dole out the vaccine and ensure that communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, have ample access.

“I’m just going to implore you…to really be ready,” Hahn told Los Angeles County Public Health director Barbara Ferrer at a recent board meeting. “I just don’t think we can afford some lag time in knowing how we’re going to distribute this vaccine.”

“We’ll be ready,” Ferrer said, according to the Times. “I promise.”

Of course, this is the same county infrastructure that has struggled for months to provide testing, and virus distribution has not only the added storage and transportation aspects, but also the tricky work of choosing who among L.A.’s 10 million residents gets it first.

For now, the county is formulating a priority list of recipients. First in line will be healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID 19 pandemic. Essential workers at high risk of contracting the coronavirus would be among the next most likely candidates, based off preliminary guidance from state and federal officials, according to the Times. The vaccine will be free to all residents.

Deadline reported Thursday evening that entertainment industry workers are on California’s list of essential workers. It is unclear where they would fall on the priority list, but it’s likely to be after healthcare workers. But film and TV production may be well prepared for vaccine distribution.

The nature of on-set production has workers gathered together in one place. Due to industry protocols, they’re already being screened every day by a COVID compliance officer. That structure would make it very easy to inoculate a cast and crew en masse. And obviously the cost of a $10,000-$15,000 freezer would be absorbable for a studio, network or producer with millions on the line.

Nursing home residents and employees likely will be a priority population in the early phases of the vaccine’s rollout. People with serious medical conditions including cancer, chronic kidney disease, serious lung disease and sickle cell disease, and residents 65 and older, are also included in the county’s preliminary plan as key populations to vaccinate.

For others, the wait could take months, according to the Times.

Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, Los Angeles County chief medical officer, said a 35-year-old with no health risks who isn’t an essential worker probably won’t be able to get a vaccine until at least spring of next year.

“I could be wrong — maybe more vaccine will be available, and it could very well be that people don’t want to take the vaccine, so we might expand it to other groups if we have more supply,” Gunzenhauser said.

“There’s a lot of unknowns, so this really is guesswork.”

Eventually, the vaccine will be widely available to any resident, but county officials are still grappling with how to make them most accessible.

Hahn would like to see the county use schools as distribution sites, an idea that L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner supports, the Times reported. Solis has asked public health officials to explore using libraries, senior centers and clinics in underserved communities. The county has also considered expanding current COVID-19 testing sites to offer vaccination as well.

Some of the first doses of vaccine are expected to be stored at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, the Times reported. The hospital was one of a handful of healthcare facilities designated by the state to receive early vaccine shipments because of its cold-storage capacity, the county public health department said. About 20 L.A. County hospitals applied, Gunzenhauser said.

It’s not yet clear how much vaccine California or L.A. County will receive.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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