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Sonoma County to California officials: Send us more vaccine

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Warning that coronavirus vaccine shipments to Sonoma County are scheduled to drop in the coming weeks, the Board of Supervisors called on state health officials to increase the county’s supply of the vaccine.

“Significant resources have been directed to expanding our capacity to equitably distribute vaccines,” board chair Lynda Hopkins wrote to state officials in a letter released Monday. “It is disappointing that this effort has been met with a decreasing supply of vaccines for our community.”

Except for a brief increase in March, Sonoma County’s allocation of vaccine has been mostly flat since February and will continue to be so, according to county data. During that period, the insurance company Blue Shield has assumed control of the state’s vaccine distribution system, a transition that has not improved the supply coming into the county. And shipments are expected to decline in April, Hopkins said in a letter dated Saturday to Dr. Mark Ghaly, state secretary of Health and Human Services, and Yolanda Richardson, secretary of the Government Operations Agency.

Ken Tasseff’s, the county’s vaccine site coordinator, said Monday that Sonoma County was allocated 12,890 doses last week, but is expecting 11,220 doses this week and 10,914 next week. The reduction comes as the state is poised Thursday to dramatically expand eligibility for vaccinations, opening them to all adults 50 and older.

Hopkins’ letter emphasized “a potential 20% decrease in supply over the next few weeks, and the challenges this will present to our county in the days to come,” she said Monday. “We really need to see our allocation increase.”

The letter to state officials was released the same day the county marked a milestone, announcing it has now vaccinated 25% of the population 16 and older. There is potential, though, to do much more. Sonoma County, in conjunction with hospitals, community health clinics and other providers with the ability to vaccinate, has built the capacity to put more than 40,000 doses into arms each week. The problem is vaccine supply, which currently can’t come close to filling that pipeline.

Sonoma County is receiving allotments that, measured on a per capita basis, are lower than shipments to counties with similar-sized populations, according to data provided by Tasseff. The 11,220 assigned this week represent 2.25% of the county’s population. The county closest in size, Tulare, is getting the equivalent of 3.58% of its population.

One possible explanation of the recent local scarcity: California is reserving 40% of all vaccine doses for the state’s poorest ZIP codes, and none of those are in Sonoma County. Hopkins’ letter pointed out that the county is striving to vaccinate its own underserved census tracts through targeted clinics.

“Sonoma County also has the highest number of homeless residents (2,745) and the highest per capita homeless rate” among areas with similar levels of urbanization, she wrote. “A mobile vaccination clinic focusing on vaccinating homeless individuals was launched in Sonoma County as of this week. As the single-dose Janssen vaccine has been recommended by CDPH for groups that may have difficulty receiving a second dose, such as the unhoused, we should receive more Janssen vaccines in addition to our current allocations to reach this vulnerable population.”

The county hasn’t received any doses of that vaccine, also known as Johnson & Johnson, since the last day of February.

Another potential source of the diminishing allotments — which, as Tasseff’s data demonstrated, is happening in other counties, too — could be a shift in vaccine distribution toward large pharmacy chains like CVS, Safeway and Rite-Aid. Social media posts suggest those appointments have been a little easier to find these days, for people willing to put in the effort. Those doses travel through a more direct federal channel, and are much harder for the county to track.

“It’s certainly possible,” Tasseff said. “We don’t have a view into the federal allocation at all.”

If more Sonoma County residents are indeed getting shots through the pharmacy chains, that’s good for the overall vaccination picture, but not necessarily supportive of the county’s focus on vaccine equity for low-income essential workers and their families.

“Regardless of whether they get more doses or fewer doses, we have a real concern that anyone, without regard to even sometimes tier status, can get into the pharmacy program,” Tasseff said. “From what I’ve heard both anecdotally and from direct observation, there is no checking at the door.”

Residents with reliable internet access and computer savvy are better positioned to snap up appointments offered by the pharmacies, leaving the economically disadvantaged on the outside looking in, said Denia Candela, the county’s health equity manager.

Asked for an explanation, a representative of the California Department of Public Health used slightly different allocation numbers than what the county provided, while emphasizing a recent uptick.

“For the record, for the week ending 3/7, Sonoma County (the county health department plus all providers in the area) was allocated 10,108 first doses,” he wrote. “In the most recent allocation (week of 3/28), Sonoma County received 12,450 doses. That’s a 23% increase over the 3 weeks.”

But now the numbers are trending downward. And the current shortage here is especially charged in light of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent announcement that California would open vaccination eligibility to everyone 50 and older beginning Thursday, and to everyone 16 and up starting April 15. Those expansions will bring a massive increase in demand. County leaders have doubts about whether supply will keep up.

“That’s one of the reasons that we’re appealing to the state — the state’s decision to open these tiers up so broadly,” Hopkins said. “I am very concerned that we are essentially leaving expectations among members of the public that are not going to be delivered upon.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

For information about how to schedule a vaccine in Sonoma County, go here.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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