Riverside County on Friday opened registration for 16 new COVID-19 vaccine clinics through Jan. 22, but appointments were all booked up in less than two hours. County officials urged patience as local advocates for seniors and essential workers expressed frustration about the rollout.
First-come, first-served appointments foreligible essential workers and seniors were available online Friday afternoon. Clinics were set for Indio, Corona, Menifee and Beaumont and were quickly fully subscribed. Some who work with the elderly and agricultural laborers complained of technical and communication issues and raised questions about equity.
The Riverside County Health Department said Friday it had received 113,750 doses of vaccine; however, on Thursday it said had gotten 114,825 vaccine doses. In total, the county, which has a population of about 2.5 million, has been allotted 166,550 doses.
The county has allocated vaccine doses to approved providers in the county, leaving it with 14,346 doses of vaccine on hand for mass vaccination clinics, county Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari said during a public meeting Friday afternoon.
That amount is “just enough to get through the vaccine clinics that we have planned through Sunday,” she said. “By the end of Sunday, we should be pretty close to out of vaccine, as a public health department.”
Saruwatari expanded on the predicament during a meeting with Coachella Valley community health providers Friday afternoon. Referring to the new, fully-booked clinics slated for next week, she said: “We have to get more vaccine in order to make it through next week with the clinics that we have planned.”
The county typically gets vaccine shipments on a weekly basis “but right now, we do not have a regular allotment that is coming through,” she said during the public meeting. The supply chain is “still maturing,” she said, adding, “we don’t know when vaccine will be arriving with certainty. We don’t know how much we’ll be getting at any given time with any level of certainty.”
The county estimates it could get between 35,000 and 40,000 doses a week, she said, but “that’s not a guarantee.”
Saruwatari emphasized that vaccine supply is limited and urged people to be patient as the county tries to get the vaccine out as quickly as possible. “As soon as we get vaccine, we’re trying to get it out into the community and into people’s arms,” she said.
It was not clear Friday how many county residents had been vaccinated. The number of residents vaccinated was no longer visible on the county’s website at noon on Friday, but data from the previous day listed 33,405 residents as vaccinated. No distinction was made between how many had received an initial dose and how many had received the second dose.
According to Bloomberg News, which is tracking vaccine rollouts across the country, California has received 3,540,175 doses, but only administered 27.5% of those shots, or 975,293. That’s a percentage far below every state except Alabama.
‘The way this is rolling out is not equitable’
The Joslyn Center in Palm Desert has fielded numerous calls from frustrated seniors who were trying to make appointmentsto get the vaccine and couldn’t, spending hours online or on the phone to no avail. This just makes their anxiety worse, which isn’t good for them, said Jack Newby, executive director of The Joslyn Center.
Seniors in their 70s and 80s — those included in the original Phase 1B Tier 1 category prior to that being expanded this week to include all those 65 and older regardless of health — are sort of being forgotten, Newby said.
The county’s tiered distribution was already confusing, he said, so when the county changed it after the state opened up vaccines to everyone 65 and over following a change in federal guidelines, the confusion just increased.
“Nobody even knew that the county was even considering doing away with the tier system,” Newby said. “Community partners have been left kind of flat-footed.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to expand vaccine eligibility surprised county officials too, Saruwatari said.
“The move to include 65 and older caught a lot of people by surprise and to some degree, even us,” she said. “We knew that there were conversations going on, but we did not have a definitive answer that we were necessarily rolling that out until the governor made his announcement.”
She said the county is “figuring out the best way to make this work.”
“At the end of the day, our goal is to get as many vaccines as possible, as quickly as possible, and as safely as possible into the arms of our Riverside County residents.”
Newby reached out to Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County Health Officer, on Friday morning to point out some of these frustrations and offer assistance. The Joslyn Center has already started recording names of those calling in and, when more information is available, plans to reach back out to those seniors.
“The way this is rolling out is not equitable,” Newby said. “It’s whoever happens to get lucky.”
Though Newby believes the county wanted to do the right thing by including those 65 and older, “it doesn’t look like there’s a great deal of planning that went into it,” he said.
Newby suggested that the county adopt a reservation system like the one in Contra Costa County, which has a “Vaccine Appointment-Request Form” available online for those eligible to receive the vaccine.
“I think that would relieve some of the anxiety if they, at least, knew they were on a list and would be contacted,” he said. Newby is also worried about seniors who don’t have access to the internet and, therefore, are unable to even access the county’s registration website as well as those who may have the internet but who are not very comfortable using it.
Obstacles to online registration
Seniors needing assistance making an appointment have been referred to the county’s Office on Aging’s Senior HelpLink phone line at (800) 510-2020. Residents can also dial 2-1-1 at any time to hear the latest information about COVID-19, including vaccine information, according to Jose Arballo Jr., spokesperson with Riverside County Public Health.
Those phone lines, too, though have seen high call volumes and, at least on the 800 number, there have been delays.
Online, one thing that might make it difficult for individuals who are less tech-savvy to make an appointment through the registration site is the prompt that asks users to take a photo of both the front and back of their medical insurance card.
“For some seniors, that’s a real stumbling block,” Arballo said. “We’re in communication with the state to try to make things as easy as possible, particularly for our seniors.”
Though vaccine information and clinic dates are listed on the county’s website, the actual link to register for and schedule appointments is operated by the state.
In order to get a vaccine, proof of eligibility and Riverside County residency — at least part-time — is required, according to county officials. Photo of an insurance card, it seems, is mandatory for the website, but the county has asked the state to remove the requirement from the registration portal.
Frustration among agricultural community
Meanwhile, Blaine Carian, a local grower and member of the agricultural organization Growing Coachella Valley, expressed frustration that county officials had not yet released their plans for vaccinating farmworkers. He estimated there are between 7,000 and 8,000 farmworkers in the region who need to be vaccinated.
Officials initially said that vaccination of agricultural workers would begin the week of Jan. 18, he said Thursday night, but “we haven’t been told anything.” Growing Coachella Valley has been developing plans for vaccinating workers near their job sites, he said, and expressed concern that a possible mass vaccination site at Goldenvoice’s 500-acre Eldorado Polo Club in Indio would be inconvenient and ineffective for workers.
Additionally, he said, growers have been requesting educational materials to distribute to workers to dispel myths about the vaccine, but the county was slow to provide such information. He finally received informational fliers in English and Spanish on Friday morning, he said. Community organizations have also been visiting workers in the fields and at testing sites to provide them with information about the vaccine.
“Our employees were told to go to work,” Carian said. “There was an implicit promise from the government… go to work and because you’re going to go to work, guess what, there’s going to be some things like, maybe you’re going to be in the front of the line for vaccines.”
He questioned how the state’s decision to open vaccination to all people over age 65 would impact essential workers’ access to the shot.
“Are there enough medical personnel to give vaccines now?” he said. “Are there enough vaccines to now take care of the ag workers who were asked to go to work, and the grocery store workers who were asked to go to work?”
Responding to such concerns, Saruwatari said Friday that the county wants to start vaccinating farmworkers next week. Officials intend to work with growers, the Desert Health Care District, community-based organizations and providers to hammer out a plan for sending mobile teams to job sites, she said.
Acknowledging that the health department expected to use up its available doses at vaccination clinics this weekend, she said, “as soon as we get that vaccine in, then we will launch.”
Frustration, confusion abound over vaccine registration, availability
Greg Rodriguez, government relations and public policy advisor with Riverside County 4th District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez’s office, described some of the challenges faced by the county this week as the distribution plan changed to align with new federal and state recommendations.
“This changes sometimes on a daily basis, as we noticed yesterday,” Rodriguez told the Palm Springs City Council on Thursday evening. “So you can imagine the scrambling.”
The county is working “frantically” to open more vaccine clinic sites, Rodriguez said, and is in conversations with the Palm Springs Convention Center and Goldenvoice, the producer of the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals.
“Most people probably know that when they got on to sign up yesterday — literally, we closed out all sites within two hours,” he said. “The good thing about that is we’re seeing a high demand, so we’re not getting that hesitancy at least for the vaccine.”
But that means not everyone who wants the vaccine is going to be able to get it yet.
The registration site has experienced “hiccups,” Rodriguez said.
Some of the difficulty with the site, he said, is due to the high volume it’s seeing. The county is looking into ways to supplement that technology, potentially opening a large-scale phone center for people to call into in order to make appointments.
Demand exceeds supplies
Rodriguez said the county does not yet have enough vaccines to meet demand.
“The most challenging thing right now is just the supply chain of vaccines,” Rodriguez said. “That is a lot of the explanation why we can’t open 15 sites in the valley or 40 sites throughout the county, because we just don’t have the level of vaccines.”
“We do see that supply chain getting better,” he said, adding that it will continue to improve as more manufactures are approved to distribute their vaccines and production increases on those that have already received emergency authorization.
Doses allocated and received in Riverside County do not include the number provided to CVS and Walgreens to administer vaccinations at skilled nursing and long-term care facilities — a task that is experiencing delays, according to Rodriguez. He said that the county is looking into what is causing the delays.
CVS Health representatives said Friday that this is not the case and that they’re on track with vaccine administration in California.
“This isn’t a drive-thru or stadium vaccination effort,” said Monica Prinzing of CVS Health. “We’re visiting more than 40,000 facilities nationwide with an average of less than 100 residents, in some cases going room to room. That said, we’re on track and delivering on goals established and communicated early in the process.”
Prinzing said that the federal government determined that CVS and Walgreens weren’t allowed to start the vaccination process until Dec. 21. In most states, the start date was Dec. 28 and, she said, individual states determined when the providers could vaccinate at skilled nursing facilities — Dec. 28 in California — and in assisted living facilities. Providers were not authorized to go into assisted living facilities, where residents require less medical care than in skilled nursing, until this past Monday, she said.
As of Friday, CVS Health had vaccinated 51,793 people in skilled nursing facilities and 29,454 people in assisted living.
Representatives with Walgreens have said that they are not providing interviews, location-specific information or figures or at this time.
Cases increase following Christmas, New Year’s holidays
New positive coronavirus cases continue to rise across the county in what looks like the repercussions from the holidays, according to Palm Springs Emergency Management Coordinator Daniel DeSelms.
“What’s concerning is new cases just this week for the county is at 17,000,” DeSelms told the Palm Springs City Council. The post-Christmas and New Year’s spike, he said, will most likely be reflected when numbers are updated again early next week.
The county is averaging about 3,500 new cases per day, DeSelms said.
Between Monday and Thursday, Palm Springs logged 203 cases — more than the 191 cases the city had reported for the entire previous week, he said.
The increase in cases is also reflected in the city’s wastewater sampling, which the city started doing in August.
In mid-October, there were less than 30,000 copies of the coronavirus found per liter of wastewater, according to Assistant City Manager Marcus Fuller. Near Thanksgiving, that number had increased to more than 300,000 and, after the beginning of December, spiked to almost 2.5 million and getting as high as 2.6 million after Christmas.
“The good news is that it has dropped,” Fuller said. Samples last week reflected fewer than 2 million copies of the virus in city wastewater.
Riverside County has reported a total of 233,899 COVID-19 cases and 2,517 related deaths as of Friday.
Coachella Valley: Cases so far
Health officials on Friday reported 85 new cases and 26 additional virus-related deaths in the Coachella Valley since Thursday. Here are the city and community breakdowns, with the numbers in parentheses showing increases since Thursday:
- Cathedral City: 5,632 cases (+19), 67 deaths (+4) and 3,819 recoveries
- Coachella: 6,615 cases (+17), 56 deaths (+1) and 4,803 recoveries
- Desert Hot Springs: 3,212 cases (+10), 44 deaths (+1), and 2,223 recoveries
- Indian Wells: 159 cases, 6 deaths, and 110 recoveries
- Indio: 9,933 cases (+12), 146 deaths (+6) and 6,890 recoveries
- La Quinta: 2,671 cases (+7), 39 deaths (+2) and 1,731 recoveries
- Palm Desert: 3,120 cases (+10), 79 deaths (+4), and 2,040 recoveries
- Palm Springs: 2,943 cases (+4), 85 deaths (+5) and 1,995 recoveries
- Rancho Mirage: 805 cases, 27 deaths, and 493 recoveries
- Unincorporated communities: Bermuda Dunes: 513 cases (+10), 6 deaths (+1), and 330 recoveries; Desert Edge: 269 cases, 11 deaths, and 158 recoveries; Desert Palms: 204 cases, 14 deaths (+1), and 126 recoveries; Garnet: 706 cases (+1), 12 deaths, and 485 recoveries; Mecca: 983 cases, 16 deaths, and 723 recoveries; North Shore: 303 cases (+1), 2 deaths, and 254 recoveries; Oasis: 737 cases, 6 deaths, and 548 recoveries; Sky Valley: 161 cases, 2 deaths, and 96 recoveries; Thermal: 389 cases (+1), 4 deaths, and 301 recoveries; Thousand Palms: 762 cases (+1), 5 deaths (+1), and 531 recoveries; Vista Santa Rosa: 245 cases, 2 deaths, and 181 recoveries
Vaccines: As of Friday, Riverside County has received 113,750 COVID-19 vaccine doses. As of Thursday, the county said 33,405 county residents have been vaccinated. The county has been allocated 166,550 doses.
California, as of Thursday: 2,859,624 cases (+42,655), and 32,291 deaths (+637)