Morgues at capacity while Santa Clara County sets lofty COVID-19 vaccine goal
Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody is pictured in this file photo.

    Local morgues are running out of space to hold those dying from COVID-19.

    Three hospital morgues are completely out of space while four more are nearing capacity, Santa Clara County health leaders said Tuesday.

    The county has brought in three refrigerated trailers, each with a capacity for 60 bodies. Two have been placed at the medical examiner’s office, and one at Bay Area Mortuary.

    A slide from Tuesday’s presentation from County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody.

    After that sobering news, Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody announced that the county’s goal is to vaccinate 85% of its eligible population with both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by Aug. 1. To be eligible, vaccine recipients must be 16 years old, the age cutoff for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. There are an estimated 1.5 million-plus eligible residents by that standard, according to the county.

    The recommended age requirement for the Moderna vaccine is 18 year old, according to the CDC.

    That means about 13,000 vaccines need to be administered per day, every single day, in the next six months and 21 days. The county is already far behind its goal.

    As of Jan. 12, the county had vaccinated a bit more than 52,216 people, using less than half the 110,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine released until that point.

    Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the county’s COVID-19 testing officer, acknowledged that there are still significant barriers to achieving the lofty vaccination goal. Those barriers include changing state and federal guidance, uncertain vaccine availability moving forward and incomplete data on vaccine allocations to systems in the county.

    “It will be unrealistic to think we will reach 100% of the population,” Fenstersheib said. “That’s never happened for any vaccine except for perhaps smallpox. So we’re looking at what might be helpful at trying to move towards herd immunity.”

    Fenstersheib said reaching an 85% vaccination rate “is dependent on vaccine availability and that nothing else goes wrong.”

    County Executive Jeff Smith echoed Fenstersheib. County health officials put a request to the state for another round of 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the past week. It received just 6,000 of those requested.

    County officials also noted that the county’s public health department can only dictate who receives vaccines within the health systems under county control. Private hospitals and health providers can vary from state and federal guidance.

    A slide from Tuesday’s presentation to Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors from County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody.

    Santa Clara County had 84,726 cumulative COVID-19 cases and 944 deaths as of Jan. 12. At least 1,092 of those cases and 25 of those deaths were from the last several days.

    ICU capacity still low

    ICU capacity across the county was 7% as of Jan. 12, including all surge beds, according to the county’s public health department.

    A slide from Tuesday’s presentation to Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors from County Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody.

    More than 50% of all ICU beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, squeezing out non-COVID patients and deferring individuals with non-emergent health problems. The surge in cases is also taking a toll on the county’s 911 system.

    “As the number of COVID-19 patients in the ICU has increased, it has squeezed out non-COVID-19 patients,” Dr. Ahmad Kamal, Santa Clara County director of health care preparedness, told county supervisors. “What this squeezing out means is that patients with other medical conditions which are quite serious… are not in the ICU.”

    This means either that care is being deferred, or patients are receiving a lower level of care than providers would ideally want, Kamal said.

    “We are incurring a debt,” Kamal said. “We will be paying off this debt for months and years to come because these people are going to get sicker and their needs are going to increase. They’re not going to go away.”

    Reactions, calls for more vaccines

    County supervisors were visibly disappointed with everything they heard.

    “You can’t listen to this report, at least I can’t, without having immense disappointment and frustration,” said Supervisor Joe Simitian. “As I’ve thought about what to do with that, it’s to take the disappointment and frustration, put it on the shelf, and move on to say …  what do we do to get it right going forward?”

    Los Gatos resident Linda Swenberg said she doesn’t know who to listen to for vaccine guidance.

    She cares for her 85-year-old mother-in-law and has received conflicting advice from doctors and the county. Family doctors told Swenberg her mother-in-law couldn’t receive a vaccine until spring, she said, but listening to the discussion made it sound like it might be sooner.

    “My issue is that there seems to be a big disconnect between what the county has ordered or issued guidance, and what the health care providers are communicating to their patients,” Swenberg said.

    Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to send a letter to the state voicing the urgency of the situation and to ask for more vaccines, said Supervisor Cindy Chavez.

    Newly-appointed Board President Mike Wasserman made the call more explicitly.

    “We’re the sixth biggest county (in California), we should be getting the sixth most vaccines,” Wasserman said. “So Sacramento: Give us the vaccines so we can protect the people of our vaccines and our state.”

    Wasserman also referenced Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pledge to have 1 million COVID-19 vaccines administered across the state by this Friday.

    “Give doses to Santa Clara County because we know what we’re doing,” he added. “We’ve proven that and we’re ready to go.”

    Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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