Early vaccinations might depend on your medical provider
While every Californian over the age of 65 is encouraged to get a coronavirus vaccination as soon as possible, actually finding one may depend on where you get your health care.
Because of the patchwork nature of the vaccine rollout, not all seniors will have equal access to shots, at least not immediately. The first doses of vaccine are likely going to patients who get their care directly from one of the big three in Sonoma County: Kaiser Permanente, St. Joseph Health and Sutter Health. Even for them, experiences may vary in ways that seem random.
People under the care of independent physicians and health clinics — and people with no insurance at all — are likely to wait longer for a chance to get inoculated.
“When we’re setting up our system in such a way that we’re allowing our (private) health systems to vaccinate, which is the reality, that’s our system of care in Sonoma County,” said Jason Cunningham, CEO of West County Health Centers. “That’s not something we’re doing just because of the pandemic. That’s what we have inherently. Which creates a problem with disparities.”
The speed with which the Federal Drug Administration approved the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines was unprecedented in American history. That approval was a major breakthrough in the fight to limit a virus that has killed more than 400,000 people in the nation, and at least 247 in Sonoma County. But the accelerated process didn’t allow for seamless planning and implementation.
The result is a system in which vaccine doses arrive in Sonoma County via multiple streams. Some come to the county Department of Health Services for dispersal to clinics and small hospitals, others directly to major medical providers such as Kaiser Permanente, others to the Safeway Pharmacy chain, yet others to CVS and Walgreens, which are servicing long-term elder care facilities.
Up to this point, the vast majority of those doses have been reserved for front-line medical workers. Now the county is preparing to move into vaccinations for seniors living independently, a much more complex tier. And the timetable for administering those first doses to elders may well depend on their health care plans.
First in line will probably be those who pay for benefits through the mega-providers — Kaiser, Sutter and St. Joseph, which owns Santa Rosa Memorial and Petaluma Valley hospitals.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Jan. 15 that the state was opening Phase 1B, Tier 1 to everyone over the age of 65, and encouraged counties to vaccinate seniors “immediately.” But with doses in scarce supply, hospitals have had to mete them out them carefully.
“Each week, we receive a fraction of the vaccine required to meet our demand,” Kaiser said in a Jan. 18 e-newsletter to members. “Kaiser Permanente cares for more than 1.5 million members age 65 and older, and last week we received a vaccine supply of just 20,000 first doses.”
Locally, Sutter and Kaiser both are now scheduling appointments for patients 75 and older, though they don’t have enough doses even for that narrower demographic. Sutter is asking members to sign up online or by phone; Kaiser is sending eligibility notification via email or the Postal Service.
Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for St. Joseph Health in Sonoma County, said its hospitals will begin immunizing seniors 65 and up next week.
“I think it’s the right next step in the process,” Krilich said. “It’s very encouraging to be able to share that with the public, to be able to demonstrate that we’re moving in the right direction. But what I’m not going to say to your readers is, ‘Look at us, we’ve arrived.’ Because there’s still a considerable amount of work that needs to be done.”
As Krilich noted, the total population in Sonoma County is close to 500,000, and the number of residents 65 and older is on the order of 100,000. As of Wednesday, a total of 26,237 doses had been administered in the county (excluding the federal CVS/Walgreens program), the equivalent of giving a full two-dose course to a little more than 13,000 people.
Even among patients of the larger providers, experiences have varied. Some Kaiser subscribers have reported spending hours on hold while trying to schedule a vaccination appointment, only to give up in frustration. Others have had more success.
Elizabeth Apana of Santa Rosa said she waited 3 hours, 46 minutes to reach a Kaiser representative. Her reward was a vaccination appointment, scheduled for two days later. The rub: It was in San Francisco, where she used to receive her medical care. To complicate matters further, Apana’s car was in the shop. Still, she leapt at the chance. She wound up taking a Golden Gate Transit bus to receive her first dose of Moderna, a trip that took two hours each way.