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Essential California: Crowdsourcing how to get the COVID-19 vaccine

A container of empty vaccine vials
The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was given to healthcare workers inside Providence Holly Cross Medical Center on Thursday in Mission Hills, Calif. Once the vaccinations are given, the syringes and empty vials are discarded into sharps disposal containers.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Jan. 19, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

A little less than a week ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that Californians 65 and older would now be eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, after a similar announcement from the federal government. The major expansion of vaccination guidelines, which broadened the priority list beyond healthcare workers and nursing home residents and staffers, created widespread confusion across the state.

It soon became clear that some counties — such as Los Angeles — were not yet ready to expand guidelines to include all seniors, while other counties were expanding access, but only to people 75 and older. (In an executive order late Monday, L.A. County Board of Supervisors chairwoman Hilda Solis directed L.A. County health officials to make COVID-19 vaccination appointments available to residents 65 and older beginning Thursday. Solis said a website and call center to make appointments will be announced before Thursday — we’ll share those resources with readers as soon as they are available.)

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After last Wednesday’s expansion of the guidelines, many Californians 65 and older had “a weekend of frustration and confusion” as they tried to figure out how to get the coronavirus vaccine, as my colleagues Alex Wigglesworth and Colleen Shalby report.

[Read the story: “Why some older people are getting the vaccine in Southern California but others are striking out” in the Los Angeles Times]

According to the CDC, “the risk for severe illness with COVID-19 increases with age, with older adults at highest risk.” But older adults in California found themselves struggling to figure out answers to the most basic questions, like whether they are actually eligible, and how to make an appointment.

Despite California being the tech capital of the world, the state’s official vaccination website is of little use to someone actually trying to get vaccinated.

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If you haven’t experienced the Kafkaesque process of trying to make an appointment for yourself or a relative in the past week, this Twitter thread from surgeon Arghavan Salles illustrates what one can expect. Trying to make an appointment for her elderly mother in Santa Clara County, Salles cycled through county, state, federal and insurance provider websites before eventually giving up for the night.

If this woman — a medical professional with a PhD and an MD — can’t figure out how to navigate the process, what hope is there for the rest of us? In her final tweet, Salles acknowledged that “there may be a link on one of these sites I’ve missed, but really it SHOULD NOT BE THIS HARD.” No, it really shouldn’t.

Speaking on Monday night after a long day treating COVID-19 patients in an ICU, Salles said she still had not been able to make her mother a vaccination appointment.

“It’s just so confusing,” Salles said, adding that she thought California “would have figured out a better system” given the state’s role as a leader on so many other things.

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A few hours after the expanded vaccine eligibility requirements were announced on Wednesday, a guy named Patrick McKenzie tweeted that someone in California should figure out which healthcare providers have vaccine inventory and start publishing that list “constantly.”

McKenzie, who works at a San Francisco-based tech company but lives in Tokyo, was not actually intending to take the project on himself. But less than an hour after McKenzie posted his initial tweet, Karl Yang, a tech worker in San Diego, responded that he had set up a community on the tech platform Discord to facilitate the project. Others quickly joined in. VaccinateCA, their entirely volunteer-run effort, was launched the next morning.

The website appears to be the closest thing California currently has to a centralized database (albeit a crowdsourced one) where people 65 and older can find out where vaccines are actually available, and how to make appointments.

Individuals can search their location on a map and then find out that, for instance, a Safeway pharmacy in their county is offering vaccines to individuals 65 and over with required appointments available on their county website, or that a local hospital is offering vaccine appointments for that same demographic on the hospital’s website. Or that all of the pharmacies in their county don’t have any vaccine inventory as of that day, which could save someone from hours of frustrating phone calls.

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According to McKenzie, the group is calling about 500 hospitals, pharmacies and other places that might have the vaccine every day and putting what they find out on their website in real time, “attempting to get the information in the hands of Californians as quickly as possible.” Their crowdsourced listings have not been independently verified by The Times.

McKenzie said about 200 people had assisted with the building of the site in some capacity, and roughly 60 people a day were making calls. They’re working with internal spreadsheets to ensure locations are called only about once every 36 hours, to hopefully ensure up-to-date information without clogging phone lines.

As of Sunday, about 50,000 people had accessed the site, according to McKenzie.

The crowdsourced list is, as Vox staff writer Kelsey Piper put it, “a microcosm of both everything good and everything utterly broken about the United Statescoronavirus response.” Volunteers have spent hundreds of hours creating a resource to get potentially life-saving information to members of a vulnerable population. And those same people have stepped up to fill what is clearly a gaping void.

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According to officials, an easier-to-navigate vaccine availability system from the state is in the works, but it’s not available yet. California COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force spokesperson Darrel Ng said Monday that the state “is working on a tool that will notify people when they are eligible to receive the vaccine and then schedule an appointment at a nearby community vaccination clinic (if available).”

More on that tool will be announced in the coming week, according to Ng.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

California’s top epidemiologist told healthcare providers on Sunday to stop using a batch of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine after a “higher than usual” number of people had apparent allergic reactions at a San Diego vaccination clinic. California has received about 330,000 doses from the Moderna lot in question — about 10% of all the vaccine, both Moderna’s and Pfizer’s, that have been distributed across the Golden State, officials said. Los Angeles Times

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Another new coronavirus variant has been found across California, including in L.A. County: This new strain is different from a highly contagious variant first identified in the United Kingdom. Los Angeles Times

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L.A. STORIES

Strong and cold Santa Ana winds are forecast to blow through Southern California, with gusts reaching up to 90 miles per hour in the mountains, according to the National Weather Service. Los Angeles Times

How L.A.’s Amanda Gorman became Biden’s inauguration poet: Now 22, Gorman became the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles at age 16 in 2014 and the first national youth poet laureate three years later. Los Angeles Times

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Amanda Gorman '20, the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States
Poet Amanda Gorman, 22, will read at President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday.
(Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University)

A record number of stolen cars during the pandemic: The number of stolen vehicles surged by 35% in 2020. Crosstown LA

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IMMIGRATION AND THE BORDER

Baja California authorities say there has been a spike in the number of children panhandling or doing street performances for money in Mexicali, Tijuana and elsewhere. As COVID-19 squeezes finances around the globe, international aid organization UNICEF predicts a rise in child labor for the first time since 2000. San Diego Union-Tribune

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

President-elect Joe Biden plans to issue a flood of executive orders in his first days in office, signaling a sharp break with his predecessor by reversing or revising contentious Trump administration policies on immigration, climate change, the coronavirus and other pressing issues, his incoming chief of staff said. Los Angeles Times

Make America California Again? That’s Biden’s plan. After four years of being relentlessly targeted by the Trump administration, California is emerging as the de facto policy think tank of the Biden-Harris administration and of a Congress soon to be under Democratic control. Los Angeles Times

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 briefings often leave more questions than answers, some officials say. Critics say Newsom frequently hypes announcements and keeps local government and public officials in the dark about his coronavirus plans. Los Angeles Times

HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Small public health departments are struggling in rural Northern California, where coronavirus skepticism runs deep despite a statewide crisis. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Near California’s fortress-like state Capitol, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered: In Sacramento, hundreds of people were determined to celebrate an unconventional MLK Day by joining a vehicle caravan through the capital city. Los Angeles Times

At Lake Tahoe, unfurling the statewide welcome mat is “awkward” as the pandemic rages. For many, the most jarring issue is the varying restrictions between California and Nevada. Los Angeles Times

Guitar sales have soared during the pandemic, boosting Sonoma County instrument makers and retailers. Santa Rosa Press-Democrat

A poem to to start your Tuesday: "In This Place (An American Lyric)” by Amanda Gorman. Poets.org

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Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: partly sunny, 70. San Diego: cloudy, 66. San Francisco: windy, 64. San Jose: windy, 66. Fresno: partly sunny, 68. Sacramento: windy, 64. More weather is here.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory comes from Susan Reynolds:

When I was 22, my husband gave me a round-trip ticket to L.A. to visit my sister. He stayed home with the kids. It was my first time on a plane and only visit to California. I had an amazing time while I was there. We went to Disneyland and Hollywood and I got to see the ocean for the first time. Though I am divorced now, I will always be grateful for that trip.

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If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.


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