L.A. County officials address questions about anticipated COVID-19 vaccine

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Los Angeles County health officials discussed on Thursday how coronavirus vaccinations can come as early this weekend, just as the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine received a vote of confidence from a U.S. government advisory panel.

Officials said that the county could receive approximately 83,000 doses as early as this weekend.

Doses of the vaccine would be rolled out in three phases, with health care workers receiving the vaccine first according to a tiered system that prioritizes workers that have the most contact with COVID-19 positive patients and people living in long-term care facilities. 

The initial allocation will be sent to nine sites across the county that have the required ultra-cold freezers for the Pfizer vaccine, which will then be distributed to 83 acute-care hospitals across the county and administered to health care workers, prioritized based on risk, county health officials said Thursday. 

Long-term care facility residents and staff are then expected to receive vaccines from CVS and Walgreens pharmacies through a federal partnership program. 

So long as shipments of vaccines continue to arrive as expected, officials said the region could receive close to 500,000 doses this month. But the massive scale of the initiative also presents unique logistical challenges.

“This is going to be the hardest logistical challenge that we’ve faced and in the middle of a surge,” said Dr. Claire Jarashow, director of the county’s vaccine preventable disease control program. “So it’s all hands on deck and we’re all working incredibly hard, but I think with the additional complexity of the numerous different vaccines, and we welcome as much vaccine as possible, but it’s very challenging, and we’re figuring these things out as we get new information daily.”

The discussion of the county’s vaccine roll-out plan came the same day a U.S. government advisory panel endorsed the large-scale use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, paving the way for clearance by the Federal Drug Administration and the start of vaccinations in the country.

There is also the possibility that the Moderna vaccine will also receive emergency FDA approval in the next two weeks, county health officials said.

With L.A. County hospitals possibly days away from administering COVID-19 vaccines, health officials also recognize the high level of vaccine skepticism across the county.

Trials for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines showed that both appear very safe, with no severe adverse reactions identified, according to county health officials. However, approximately 10% to 15% of people may have some temporary side effects such as fever, fatigue, headache and muscle pain, officials said.

“We recognize that many folks have concerns about the vaccines and may be hesitant to be vaccinated, as we implement the county plan to vaccinate literally millions of Angelenos,” Dr. Paul Simon, the county’s chief science officer, said Thursday. “It will be critically important that we address this vaccine hesitancy with accurate, understandable, culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate information.”

Health officials on Thursday also stressed the “alarming” increase in coronavirus-related hospitalizations and cases across the county. Just in the past two days, the number of COVID-19 patients in the county’s hospitals increased by more than 300, officials said during a news briefing.

“Like a speeding car approaching a cliff, if we do not rapidly change course, we are in jeopardy of catastrophic consequences,” Simon said. “Because our hospitals being overwhelmed and severely ill patients not able to get the care they need, right now at this very dangerous time, people need to stay home at all times, if possible.”

State health officials on Thursday said the capacity in intensive care units had shrunk to 7.7% in Southern California and 1.9% in the San Joaquin Valley. The region around Sacramento reported an ICU capacity of 13.3%, triggering new restrictions for the area as the available capacity in intensive care units fell below 15%. 

California this week broke its single-day record for COVID-19 deaths with 219 on Tuesday. The state is now averaging 135 deaths a day over a seven-day period, coming close to the all-time high of 144 recorded in August. Health officials expect cases, hospitalizations and deaths to continue spiking in the coming weeks following the likelihood that many people got infected over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Meanwhile, while the timeline of vaccine distribution continues to come further into focus, county health officials are still unable to provide any concrete timeline to a return to pre-COVID life.

“I recognize that people are very eager, understandably, to get back out there and resume their normal activities. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet,” said Simon, who’s worked in public health for over 30 years. “I’ve never been more concerned than I am right now and so we’re not even close to being able to move back out. I think over the next several months we’ll get a better understanding of when we can open things up, we’ll have a better understanding of how well the vaccine works in the real world.”

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