General public unlikely to receive COVID-19 vaccinations before spring

Though San Benito County is preparing to move to the next vaccination phase, limited supply could make mass inoculation difficult to accomplish.

Health care and frontline workers in San Benito County began receiving the COVID-19 vaccine last month. For the general public, however, inoculation isn’t likely until mid- to late spring.

“We are dependent upon the manufacturers for the supply of vaccines,” Dr. George Gellert, deputy health officer for San Benito County, told the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 12. “That has not gone as predicted, but we are optimistic that over the coming months it will increase dramatically.”

In recent days, things have moved rapidly regarding vaccine availability and how the public will be informed. As the county prepares to move into Phase 1B to start administering doses to eligible residents 65+, a local COVID-19 vaccine information portal is now live.

Gellert cautioned the public against taking measures to jump ahead in line for vaccination, as that consumes staff time to respond.

“We’d much rather focus on acquiring and delivering vaccines, so we appeal to the board to work with us to ensure that there is a transparent understanding of the public about when they will be vaccinated based on their individual profile, and that the general public understands that over the next several months they will not likely be vaccinated,” he said.

Despite the fact that the supply of vaccines remains uncertain in the county for now, the federal government announced Jan. 13 two changes to its COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan. All states can now vaccinate anyone 65 or older, as well as anyone below 65 with comorbidities (anyone with two simultaneous diseases). Previously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlined in Phase 1B that those over 75 and residents of long-term care could receive the vaccines. 

Tracy Belton, deputy director of San Benito County Health and Human Services/Public Health Services, told supervisors on Jan. 12 that her agency had recently created a vaccine distribution dashboard that will be updated as fast as possible. She added that the county remains under the Dec. 16 regional stay-at-home order in effect until the San Joaquin Valley Region surpasses an ICU capacity of 15%. ICU capacity is currently 0%. Among the regional order’s mandates is a limit on the number of households that can get together.

“This is the most common mode of transmission of COVID-19,” Belton said. “The order does prohibit private gatherings of any size, closed sector operations except for critical infrastructure and retail, and requires 100% masking.”

Belton said a new Workplace Reporting Outbreak Requirement, AB 685, requires that when employers identify three or more cases of COVID-19 at their worksites within a 14-day period they must report it to the local health department within 48 hours. She said her department has received numerous reports of outbreaks that were then passed along to the California Department of Public Health, which is building a database of outbreaks by industries and sectors. The database is not yet operational.

The county health department is also working on an outbreak portal so local employers can submit reports electronically. Belton anticipated the portal would be operational within a week. She said the agency is working with the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce and the Hollister Downtown Association to inform local businesses about AB 685. Supervisors reminded her to also inform businesses in San Juan Bautista and Aromas about the new requirement.

Lynn Mello, deputy director of public health services, reported that her department, as well as Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital and the San Benito Health Foundation are administering COVID-19 vaccines to healthcare workers, long-term care facility workers and patients, and healthcare first responders. The state first allocated 230 doses of the Pfizer vaccine at the end December.

Mello said the state determines how many doses county health jurisdictions receive, and that those jurisdictions do not know from one week to the next how many they will receive.

“Since Dec. 16, and as of yesterday [Jan. 11], our county has received 2,345 doses of vaccine,” Mello said, adding that 615 were second doses given at the hospital. She said the remaining doses were divided among public health services, the San Benito Health Foundation and social services. As of Jan. 13, San Benito County has received 2,460 COVID-19 vaccines (first and second doses) and distributed 1,090 doses.

“This is a true countywide partnership to share the allocations so the vaccines get to the public and we get through Phase 1A as soon as possible,” she said. “We are relying on other healthcare providers to join this effort. This includes the pharmacies who are willing to enroll to be vaccinators. Safeway pharmacy is approved.”

Samela Perez, emergency preparedness program manager, said the health department is preparing to roll out mass vaccinations, which will depend on vaccine availability. She said four potential sites in the county have been identified for vaccinating large groups of up to 2,000 people per day, and two additional sites are being considered in Hollister and San Juan Bautista. She said there are plans for up to 10 drive-thru lanes at each site.

Public Health Services is recruiting up to 100 volunteers to be vaccinators; oversee vaccine storage, administration and documentation, registration and screening; medical support to monitor people for 15 minutes after they have been vaccinated; as well as traffic control and safety officers. She said as mass vaccinations are taking place, other healthcare partners such as Safeway, Nob Hill, doctors, and the health foundation, will continue their vaccination efforts.

“We know we can successfully vaccinate several thousand residents with an average throughput of five minutes per person,” Perez said, adding that the agency has obtained COVID-19 grants of nearly $3 million to help reduce the financial impact on the community.

Dr. David Ghilarducci, interim public health officer for the county, said the two COVID-19 vaccines “are the path out of the pandemic.” The downside, he said, “is there isn’t enough vaccine to inoculate the population” as fast as he would like. He said even though the agency wants to vaccinate the public as quickly as possible, it needs to follow prioritization plans put forth by the state health department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gellert said vaccinating 330 million people will not happen overnight unless there is a high degree of mobilization at national, state and local levels. He said it is important for the health department and county supervisors to partner to ensure that public expectations are being managed appropriately.

He emphasized the general public can remain safe by continuing to practice social distancing, wearing masks, washing their hands and avoiding social gatherings.

“They will be safe until they can be vaccinated,” he said.


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John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]