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Sutter Health cancels second doses of coronavirus vaccine at Santa Rosa clinic

Sutter Health is canceling appointments for second doses of coronavirus vaccine, signaling another step backward in the effort to immunize Sonoma County against the most deadly human pathogen in a century.

The Sacramento-based health care system, which provides care for 3 million people in Northern California and operates a regional hospital in Santa Rosa, is in danger of having to wipe out more than 90,000 vaccination appointments across its system through March 9, including 40,000 second doses, Sutter media relations director Angeline Sheets said Tuesday.

Sheets was unable to state how many appointments had already been canceled, or how many of those erasures were happening in Sonoma County. But hundreds had second-dose appointments canceled at the large Sutter vaccination clinic inside Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, adjacent to its north Santa Rosa hospital, on Monday and Tuesday.

Based on daily vaccination capacity at the Luther Burbank site and the weekly nature of vaccine allocations in California, the number of bumped appointments at the Santa Rosa clinic will number somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000.

Some found the news difficult to process.

“Sorry,” Julia Musall said as she began to cry over the phone Tuesday. “It’s just so very upsetting.”

Musall, who lives in Nevada, had helped her 86-year-old mother, Virginia Smith, book a slot for her second dose at LBC on Tuesday. But Sutter Health left a voicemail telling Smith the appointment was canceled. Musall said she speaks to her mother daily and normally visits her a half-dozen times a year. Because of COVID, though, she has seen her mom only once since January 2020, and that was at a funeral.

Smith has a flight booked to Nevada in April.

“Now I’ll be very upset if she can’t come,” Musall said. “God bless her, my mom drives. She played softball until she was 80 years old. But for her to be stuck home, I can tell the diminishing of her memory and certain things. When she’s been around some of the family, I notice it’s very helpful to her. That’s why I’m so upset.”

In January, the federal government directed states not to stockpile vaccine for second doses, and the state of California soon passed along the guidance to health care providers. Sutter Health obliged, like other providers, figuring the pipeline would soon be much fuller. Instead, vaccine supply has stagnated and Sutter is caught without enough vials to supply the second doses it had promised.

“Over the past month, we were allocated extremely limited or no vaccine supply from the state — certainly nowhere near our requested allocation to fulfill even second doses,” Sheets said.

Beset by weather-related supply chain disruptions and an uneven start to Blue Shield’s phased takeover of California’s vaccination system, many health care providers large and small have been forced to cancel or postpone first-dose appointments. But representatives of both Kaiser Permanente and Providence St. Joseph said Tuesday their medical groups are not currently canceling slots. Sutter appears to be the only major vaccinator scrapping second doses.

It’s a blow to the medical group and its operation at LBC, which has previously pushed the envelope of inclusivity. The LBC clinic was the first large site in the county to open vaccinations to everyone 65 and older, and Sutter has been steadfast in its commitment to offer immunizations to all Northern California residents, not just Sutter Health patients or Sonoma County residents.

Sheets said that broad scope of eligibility has nothing to do with the current shortages.

“At the end of the day, all the health organizations are reporting back to the state, saying, ‘This is what we need,’” she noted.

One big problem here, as has often been the case during the vaccine rollout in Sonoma County, is communication. Not everyone with a canceled appointment got that message from Sutter. Some didn’t know of their predicament until they checked their Sutter Health online portal and found the appointment missing. Others didn’t find out until they arrived at Luther Burbank Center on Monday or Tuesday and saw a sandwich board reading “No Vaccines Today Due to Vaccine Shortage.”

Tuesday, Kaaren Parker was wondering what she would do about her father’s appointment, originally scheduled for Wednesday. Parker got a notification from Sutter about a canceled appointment. But she handles the medical bookkeeping for her father, her husband and herself. All three had second doses coming through Sutter, and the message didn’t make clear which appointment it was referring to.

“My dad can’t get in and out of the car as easily as we can,” Parker said. “So I really don’t want to be taking him out there if I’m not sure.”

Her worry is understandable. Her father, Darwin Henry, will be 103 in May.

Those losing their Sutter slots this week will move past the recommended window for second doses — 21 days for Pfizer-BioNTech, 28 days for Moderna — though the CDC has approved extending either out to 42 days when necessary. Sutter says it is contacting those affected, insisting someone will call them within 7-10 days to reschedule.

That brings little peace of mind to Laurie Proctor, whose 82- and 83-year-old parents, Petaluma residents, had their second doses canceled this week.

“They’ve been really looking forward to this, just to go to the grocery store and get out a little more,” Proctor said. “They’re older. How many years do they have left? They don’t want to spend them afraid they’re breathing in aerosols that are going to give them COVID.”

Despite the local setbacks, high-placed government officials continue to paint an optimistic picture of coronavirus vaccination. President Joe Biden said Tuesday he expects to have enough vaccine in the channel to inoculate every adult American by the end of May. And California anticipates receiving more than a million doses of the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the coming days.

Even locally, there are rays of good news. After learning of her parents’ cancellations, Proctor sent an email to Dr. Sundari Mase, the Sonoma County health officer. Before long, someone from the Sonoma County Medical Association was calling to offer second doses Tuesday afternoon.

“Just to clarify, this is not Sutter that followed up,” Proctor said. “This is being done by Sonoma County.”

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

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