South Bay health leaders skeptical about Newsom expansion of COVID-19 vaccine eligibility
Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, Santa Clara County COVID-19 testing officer, is pictured in this file photo.

    Santa Clara County health officials greeted the announcement that all Californians will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by mid-April with caution and skepticism.

    Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Thursday all residents 50 years and older can get the shot starting April 1.Two weeks later, anyone over age 16 can get a COVID-19 vaccine beginning April 15.

    If an eligible individual comes to a vaccine site with a family member, regardless of whether they’re eligible at the time, Newsom said “we will accommodate the family member, no questions asked.” That flexibility becomes effective immediately.

    For many, the rapid expansion of COVID-19 vaccine eligibility comes with a sigh of relief — a light at the end of the tunnel, as Newsom called it. But local health officials aren’t as optimistic. They are still struggling to get enough doses to accommodate the waves of new people eligible for the vaccine.

    “So what does this mean for us? You know we’ve been talking about the scarcity of vaccine and that continues,” said COVID-19 Testing Officer Dr. Marty Fenstersheib.

    There are 400,000 residents between the ages of 50 and 64 who would become eligible for a vaccine on April 1in exactly one week.

    ‘We are concerned that next week, when we add that additional 400,000 people, that we might not have (enough) vaccine,” Fenstersheib said. “We are being told from the state and federal government that vaccines will be flowing in the month of April. I have no idea how many vaccines that means.”

    According to public data, more than 319,000 residents countywide have received both doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. More than 180,000 thousand additional residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, while another 10,000 county residents have received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

    “Once they are produced and on their way to California we will certainly put them to use right away,” Fenstersheib added.

    The announcement comes after weeks of squabbling between Santa Clara County, state officials and private insurance company Blue Shield over insufficient vaccine supply.

    At the end of February, Newsom announced an agreement between the state and Blue Shield allowing the insurance company to distribute vaccine doses. Santa Clara County officials refused to sign on to the agreement with Blue Shield, saying its system already worked fine, and it preferred to receive its doses from the state.

    The county earlier this week signed a memorandum with the state that allows it to retain its own vaccine reservation system and distribute vaccines to community clinics directly. The county will still have to work with Blue Shield, but won’t sign on to any contracts with the company.

    Local health leaders say county medical providers have the capacity to vaccinate 200,000 residents per week, but are only receiving enough doses from the state to vaccinate about one-third of that number.

    Newsom said federal allocation of vaccines to California is increasing, and he expects the state will be able to administer 4 million doses of vaccine per week.

    More than 15 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed statewide so far, according to state data. More than 5.4 million Californians are fully vaccinated, equating to about 17% of the state’s population.

    Santa Clara County moved into the orange tier this week, removing capacity limits on retailers and malls, and allowing indoor dining and other activities to expand capacity.

    Fenstersheib still urged caution.

    This week, scientists discovered the first occurrence of the P.1 COVID-19 variant in Santa Clara County, first observed in Brazil in January. The one case was identified in a county resident who had traveled domestically earlier this month.

    Scientists are still determining if the vaccine is as effective against new variants that have appeared in recent months. 

    “We really recommend people do not travel and we strongly discourage travel for this very reason,” Fenstersheib said. “There is a chance of being exposed and bringing back variants we already have here or others that are circulating.”

    Federal funding 

    Meanwhile, Rep. Zoe Lofgren announced Thursday that more than $15 million is headed to the county’s community health centers to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines.

    This funding was included in the American Rescue Plan, which the House passed at the end of February and was signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this month. In total, 175 community health centers in California will receive nearly $1 billion in funding.

    This funding will go to five community health centers in Santa Clara County, including nearly $8 million to Gardner Family Health Network, $3.6 million to the Indian Health Center of Santa Clara County and $1.5 million to School Health Clinics of Santa Clara County.

    “For more than a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for families and businesses in Santa Clara County,” Lofgren said. “Fortunately, help is on the way thanks to the passage of the American Rescue Plan, smart executive actions from the Biden Administration, and more vaccine approvals.”

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

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