With millions of Californians said to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine booster, the state plans to drastically increase its vaccination rate.
Officials unveiled a new COVID-19 vaccine action plan on Thursday – just hours before the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Rochelle Walensky said a third dose of Pfizer BioNTech should be given to residents 65 and over in long-term care facilities and those ages 50 to 64 with underlying illnesses at least six months after receiving their first series of vaccinations.
The CDC also said younger adults with underlying medical conditions could receive a booster, as well as adults aged 18 to 64 who are at increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus due to professional or institutional circumstances.
The CDC recommendations, issued after midnight Friday morning Eastern Time, apply only to people who have received the Pfizer vaccine. “We will address recommendations for the Moderna and J&J vaccines with the same urgency as soon as these data become available,” Walensky said in a statement.
While further recommendations are needed from state officials before a third dose is distributed to people in these categories, officials say they are preparing now to make sure they are ready.
“We are working hard to make sure that not only are we ready to provide these, but those who are entitled know they are entitled and know when the time is right,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, the California Secretary of Health and Social Affairs during a briefing.
Officials say the state’s MyTurn platform will have the ability to check residents’ booster eligibility and send text messages to alert people to available options.
State officials estimate that there are approximately 6.6 million seniors who might eventually be eligible for a booster dose, and Ghaly said many in that group were recipients of a Pfizer BioNTech syringe. Younger Californians might put their names in the queue depending on how risky conditions are ultimately defined.
A rapid move to cover these populations would result in a dramatic acceleration in vaccination rates.
At the height of the rollout in April, providers were dispensing an average of just over 400,000 daily doses across the country. But for the past week, Californians took an average of around 62,000 shots a day, according to Times data.
It’s been months since the state’s running average exceeded 100,000.
Getting vaccinated in California is very easy – often no appointment is required and the doses are plentiful at pharmacies, which have become a popular place to get the vaccinations.
Officials have already seen less than expected demand for third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for certain immunocompromised people, which began distribution in mid-August. California officials, for example, had expected demand for third doses in this group to peak by the week of August 30, and forecast 114,000 doses to be administered that week, well above the 75,000 doses administered.
California officials estimate that approximately 259,000 third doses have been given for the immunocompromised since mid-August. That’s only about a third of the state’s population with a moderately to severely compromised immune system.
State officials say it is possible that demand for the COVID-19 boosters could increase, especially if there is a worse than expected fall and winter outbreak. Kaiser Permanente is already planning mass vaccination sites, as are other local health courts.
Giving a booster to those 65 and over will depend primarily on pharmacies and primary health authorities, while bulk vaccination clinics may need to reopen or expand as younger adult eligibility becomes more widespread. Pharmacies currently supply more than 60% of vaccine doses administered and are likely to be able to handle greater demand, state officials say.
School vaccination clinics, pharmacies, and pediatricians are likely to be the primary vaccination sites for those under the age of 12 when children are eligible for vaccination. The California Health and Human Services Agency says vaccinations for 5-11 year olds could begin in mid-October.
Officials say a slowdown in vaccinations in recent months is in part the by-product of leaving a large segment of the population – around 66% – already at least partially vaccinated, leaving a pool mostly full of people who have hesitated or refused to roll up their sleeves.
Still, officials say there is an infrastructure in place to expedite vaccine distribution, with the caveat that “it requires continued commitment from providers at all levels to ensure that they are ready, with resources, and ready with it Capacity to work ”.
Some local governments and health care providers are planning the possibility of reopening mass vaccination centers. Such clinics may also require additional staff, which could be overwhelmed, although hospitals treating COVID-19 patients face increased needs.
Mega sites – such as in sports stadiums, universities, and amusement parks – were a hallmark of the early vaccination campaign.
However, as demand declined, providers turned away from huge, centralized operations and turned to a more community-based approach that brought vaccines to where people live, work and recover. A planned increase in vaccinations or booster vaccinations will continue to bring with it the need to transport people to vaccination sites or to bring some doses to their homes.
“California continues to lead the nation in both vaccine delivery and low case numbers. Vaccines work. They are safe, effective and end this pandemic, “Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “We fully support the determination of our federal partners to provide boosters, and California has built the infrastructure necessary to mobilize such vaccine distribution.”
The latest CDC recommendation isn’t the last step before boosters become commonplace.
The Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup – which includes public health experts from California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington – has yet to intervene, as does the California Department of Health.
“So all vendors across California, including pharmacists at your local retailer, pharmacy, or healthcare system – even all of our staff [points of distribution] – have to wait for the green light, ”said Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, an assistant health officer for Orange County, earlier this week.
Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles District Director of Public Health, said many vaccination sites are being prepared to increase daily vaccination capacity. Across the country there is capacity to deliver approximately 130,000 doses per day through a robust network of approximately 1,300 permanent clinics and 400 mobile teams.
“Many of the sites have already told us that they have great capacity to expand very quickly to meet demand,” Ferrer said during a briefing.
In Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County officials are preparing to help people register, focusing on the hardest-hit communities.
The offer of boosters – as well as the possible extension of the vaccination entitlement to children under the age of 12 – will lead the vaccination campaign into a new phase at a critical point in time.
While California has made significant strides overall in the fight against the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus, some experts and officials remain concerned about a possible resurgence later this year.
Areas with lower overall vaccination rates also remain particularly vulnerable to outbreaks. Unvaccinated Californians are eight times more likely to be infected with the coronavirus, 13 times more likely to be hospitalized and 15 times more likely to die from the disease than their vaccinated counterparts, Ghaly said.
In 11 of California’s 58 counties, more than 70% of the population is at least partially vaccinated, according to the Times. But 14 other counties have coverage rates below 50%.
Making sure as many people as possible get the full benefit of vaccination protection will help break the cycle of surges that the pandemic has created for the past year and a half, experts and officials say.
And even with the emphasis on boosters imminent, Ghaly said, “We’re going to continue the heavy beating of the drums to get your first shot and start the series and get yourself fully vaccinated.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.