Will Blue Shield system have room for Sonoma County’s vaccination partners?
After completing its four scheduled vaccination clinics at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds this week, the Sonoma County Medical Association has put more than 6,000 shots into arms of county residents, according to executive director Wendy Young. It’s a remarkable track record for an operation that has overwhelmingly relied on volunteer labor.
But SCMA’s role as community vaccinator may be coming to an end. Unless the association can find an approved sponsor with a medical license, it could be squeezed out of California’s emerging vaccination system, which will use the insurance goliath Blue Shield to allocate every dose of coronavirus vaccine and track data on how much is being delivered and administered.
“At the beginning of this, as a medical association, I felt we should be able to find a way to be relevant,” Young said. “We’ve been serving our community for 160 years. This should be our time to shine. How can we be relevant? And I feel like we found a way to do that. But other people are not seeing it.”
State officials insist Blue Shield’s role as “third-party administrator” will only increase the flow of vaccine in California, and will help to ensure equity among recipients. But people involved in Sonoma County’s vaccination effort fear there is something to lose as well.
Donna Waldman, executive director of Jewish Community Free Clinic, said colleagues in other parts of the state were thrilled to see that Blue Shield would be taking over allotment of vaccines, because they didn’t think their local health departments were doing an adequate job of it. That’s not the case in Sonoma County, insisted Waldman, who said the department directed by Barbie Robinson “has done an extraordinary job” with its vaccine rollout.
Some worry the local effort will lose some of its agility under a system in which every appointment is made through the state’s MyTurn.ca.gov portal. Case in point: When Sutter Health ran out of vaccine and had to cancel critical second-dose appointments for its clinic at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts this week, it was SCMA that swooped into the breach, immediately finding slots for a number of affected seniors.
“Thank goodness that their all-volunteer staff was available to fulfill that lifesaving mission,” said Joel Levine, an 82-year-old retired doctor who got his substitute second dose — as did his wife — at the SCMA clinic in Grace Pavilion. “It would be a great shame for the establishment to shut down such a fine, well-equipped organization.”
MyTurn.ca.gov is already available to eligible Sonoma County residents — with zero available appointments showing, as of Friday — and it was Blue Shield that allotted the county its doses for next week. But the new system won’t begin in earnest here until Sunday, and will ramp up gradually through the month of March. The insurer says providers currently administering the vaccine will continue to receive doses during this transition.
Blue Shield of California had meetings with more than half of the 61 participating local health jurisdictions by Feb. 26, company president Paul Markovich said during a press briefing that day. “We’re spending a lot of energy understanding where their highest-risk populations are, their hardest to reach, and how we can help them make sure they are reaching those populations and vaccinating them,” Markovich added.
Starting next week, Sonoma County will no longer be receiving any shipments of vaccine, said Ken Tasseff, the county’s vaccination site coordinator. Blue Shield will be in charge of vaccine integrity — making sure it doesn’t spoil — and will direct manufacturers to send allotments straight to providers.
“Absolutely there’s concern,” Tasseff said. “We’re going to lose control over the vaccine distribution and allocation process. That being said, we have a lot of pieces in place, Plan Bs in place, to ensure that if there’s breakdowns in their system, that we’ve got backups. We are not dismantling anything until we are confident that the third-party administrator has it right.”
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the county has invited Blue Shield to town halls and Zoom meetings, but has gotten no response.
SCMA is not the only vaccinator that could be dislodged from the network. The Sonoma County Office of Education has been organizing clinics at Rancho Cotate High School that have immunized 4,200 school employees and child care providers since Feb. 8, part of the drive to get children back in the classroom and parents back in the workforce.
But SCOE is not a medical provider, obviously. An education office representative said a team of 40 volunteer school nurses trained for disaster services are administering the vaccine at Rancho Cotate. This clinic also might need a sponsor to survive.