Other Sonoma County vaccination sites trying to avoid OptumServe ‘debacle’
Acknowledging the “debacle” that forced the cancellation of thousands of coronavirus immunizations last week, Sonoma County officials vowed Wednesday to take greater control over distribution of the vaccine while noting there is little chance of fixing a flaw in the online portal that allows people to sign up for shots before their turn.
The screening process on the OptumServe website — which relies on a “stupid, inadequate question,” Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said — still fails to stop people younger than 75 from booking appointments more than a week after the county asked the company to improve the site.
The problem at the OptumServe clinic at the Rohnert Park Community Center is now in danger of being repeated at other vaccination sites in the county. A similar glitch is already causing a scramble at clinics managed by West County Health Centers and Sonoma Valley Health Partners, both of which have been working to cancel appointments for those younger than 75.
The county hopes to expand vaccinations next week for members of the general public older than 70 and offer doses to everyone older than 65 within three weeks, vaccine chief Dr. Urmila Shende said Wednesday during a meeting with The Press Democrat editorial board.
But a disjointed and inefficient health care system that has left no one entity fully in charge of local distribution has slowed the campaign to vaccinate the county’s half-million residents and left many confused about where to turn for help.
“It feels like every single layer of government during this pandemic has simply delegated authority,” said Hopkins, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors. “The feds said, ‘Hey, states, it’s on you.’ The states said, ‘Hey counties, it’s on you.’ And then we’re supposed be excited to get these crumbs from the state, the most recent crumb being this OptumServe system, which is a state contract.”
It would be much easier to hold the private company accountable, Hopkins said, if the county had entered into the contract directly, rather than inheriting an agreement negotiated by the California Department of Public Health.
The anxiety resulting from the canceled appointments in Rohnert Park underscores the scarcity of vaccine at every level of society. Sonoma County directly received 7,425 doses this week, a small fraction of what will be needed to provide two doses each to the roughly 375,000 adults living in the county.
To address the scarcity, the county has targeted residents 75 and older for the first vaccinations outside of health care workers and emergency personnel. Because many of those seniors have health care coverage through established providers, the county’s Adult and Aging division and its health equity manager worked with a number of nonprofit and medical groups to identify seniors for the OptumServe site.
The Rohnert Park clinic was never meant for everybody, but rather dedicated to those who, in the words of Shende, “had disabilities, who also had less access to technology, and also did not have medical homes, and are from underrepresented parts of our population.”
But that criteria was not mentioned in a Jan. 25 news release from the county announcing the creation of the clinic, nor was it noted on the OptumServe website used to schedule appointments. Problems arose when people began sharing a link to the OptumServe appointment site on social media. More than 9,000 appointments eventually were made by residents younger than 75, and the system crashed. OptumServe wound up purging its entire slate of appointments, mystifying and alarming those who had signed up, before gradually beginning to restore slots for those who were eligible.
“We want to own the fact that the OptumServe situation was a debacle, in terms of access and resources,” said Barbie Robinson, the county’s director of health services.
No doses of the precious vaccine went to waste in the chaos, said Ken Tasseff, the county’s vaccine site coordinator.
OptumServe subsequently amended its website at the behest of the county, noting that you must be 75 or older to make an appointment. But the type is small, and 60-somethings who miss it aren’t red-flagged during the sign-in process, even when they enter a date of birth that should exclude them. Hopkins said Tasseff has made constant requests to OptumServe about the site.
“And the best we’ve got is that stupid, inadequate question asking you to state whether you’re 75 and older,” she said. “And you can still put in your birth date, and still get an appointment.”
Newsom and his Health and Human Services Secretary, Mark Ghaly, have announced a statewide portal, MyTurn.ca.gov, that they say will simplify the process. It’s currently accepting appointments only in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
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