California is running critically low on COVID-19 vaccines as people vie for shots

Medical workers tend to people waiting in their cars at a COVID-19 vaccine site at Cal State Northridge on Tuesday.
Medical workers tend to people waiting in their cars at a large-scale COVID-19 vaccine site at Cal State Northridge on Tuesday.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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As California increases COVID-19 vaccinations, supply issues are becoming a critical problem, and some counties say they are rapidly running out.

County officials say they have most of the resources — large vaccine centers and personnel to run them — but lack the doses they need.

“Our ability to protect even more L.A. County residents in the coming weeks and months is entirely dependent and constrained by the amount of vaccine we receive each week, and often, we do not know from one week to the next how many doses will be allocated to L.A. County,” Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said in a news conference Wednesday.


Those 65 and over are vying for appointments and have endured long lines to get their shots. But officials warn that a shortage in supplies could delay how quickly the state is able to vaccinate older Californians before moving onto other groups not currently prioritized.

On Tuesday in Los Angeles County, those 65 and older began signing up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments. But it will take time to inoculate everyone.

Jan. 20, 2021

Running low

In San Francisco, officials had warned that vaccine availability could run out as early as Thursday because the city’s allocation dropped significantly from a week ago and doses that had to be discarded were not replaced.

Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco’s director of public health, said at a news conference that the city received 12,000 doses a week ago and asked for the same number this week. Instead, the city received only 1,775 doses.

But now that the state has authorized use of the questionable Moderna batch, which had been linked to apparent allergic reactions, the city will be able to use 8,000 doses it had been forced to set aside, officials said.

Los Angeles County needs more than 4 million doses to provide the two-dose vaccine protocol to all healthcare workers — an estimated 800,000 people — along with 1.3 million residents 65 and older, officials said.

But to date, the county has received only 853,650 doses. Once the 2.2 million residents on the current priority list are vaccinated, there are 8 million others left — each of whom would need two doses of the current vaccines.


Next week, the county will receive 143,900 doses, but 106,000 of those — more than 70% — are to be used as second doses for healthcare workers and others. That will leave only 37,900 shots for seniors and unvaccinated healthcare workers, according to estimates by officials.

Dr. Seira Kurian, director of the L.A. County Health Public Department’s Division of Medical Affairs, said in a town hall Tuesday evening that officials originally thought the federal government had reserves of vaccines that would be delivered to counties to beef up supplies when municipalities started administering second doses.

“But because it’s unclear how much, if any, of those reserves are available, what will most likely happen is that we’ll probably not be seeing a huge increase in the number of doses coming in to us every week, but we are expecting to still be receiving the vaccine doses at the current rate and at the current levels,” at least for the short term, Kurian said.

Long lines, but feeling lucky

As mass vaccination sites continue to launch throughout the state, reports of long lines that often take hours for residents to get through have emerged. So too has widespread confusion from older residents who have tried to book appointments but have faced difficulty accessing scheduling websites amid an influx in traffic.

El Cajon resident Lauren Ladley has been helping her parents, family friends and neighbors keep track of when they can get vaccinated and where. Many of them have been flustered and frustrated trying to answer those questions on their own, piecing together bits of information from news reports. Ladley said the process would be even more painful without her assistance.

“Any neighbors who don’t have someone advocating for them are going to have a terrible time,” she said. “And that’s if they have transportation” to get to a vaccination site.


And just how long you wait at a vaccination site will likely depend on where and when you go, mirroring what happened when COVID-19 testing sites first opened in San Diego County.

A security guard who doubled as a patient greeter at a county-run site in El Cajon said the line Tuesday ran the length of the building. But only a few people stood outside Wednesday, including several seniors who were assisted by caretakers, partners, children or grandchildren.

La Mesa resident Mary Hennessy, 89, owner of Mary’s Donuts in Santee, sat in a chair waiting with her granddaughter, Kelly.

“Isn’t that spectacular? It’s a special day. An inauguration and an inoculation, how good is that? I just don’t think it could be any better!” Hennessy shouted, smiling and raising her arms high.

Things were also humming along at a county public health center in Escondido. But patients acknowledged they were among the lucky ones who got in while there was still availability.

Elizabeth Kostas, a dental hygienist in Carmel Valley, said it took her 10 tries to schedule an appointment at a mass COVID-19 vaccination site near Petco Park. Each time she saw an open slot, she raced to fill in her information, only to be told there were no longer available spots, forcing her to start again.


“If I got ill and I hadn’t acquired that appointment, how am I going to feel? That’s a horrible feeling,” said Kostas, who added that she had the same issue when trying to schedule an appointment through her healthcare provider. “I don’t mean to sound alarmist or emotional, but it’s a matter of life and death.”

The state is receiving about 300,000 to 500,000 COVID-19 doses each week, a pace that would take months for priority list residents to get vaccinated.

Jan. 21, 2021

Until June?

State officials said Wednesday that it could take months before all people 65 and over are vaccinated.

That timetable would push back vaccine access for those not on the priority list at least four months, based on state epidemiologist Dr. Erica Pan’s estimate at a vaccine advisory committee meeting. The current priority list, in addition to older residents, includes healthcare industry workers and employees and residents of nursing homes.

The pace could change if the federal government speeds up shipments beyond the current rate of 300,000 to 500,000 doses each week, Pan said. So far, the state has received roughly 4 million vaccine doses from the federal government.

“We don’t know when supply will be increasing,” Pan said, noting that the state is not holding onto vaccines. The assessment is based on dosage levels for the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna vaccines, which each require two doses for efficacy. If allocation and distribution increase, or a new single-dose vaccine is approved, the timeline could change, she said.

Five large-scale vaccination sites opened across Los Angeles County on Tuesday.

Jan. 19, 2021

Vaccine basics

Residents 65 and older can sign up for an appointment at the county public health department’s website, Residents without computer access can call (833) 540-0473 between 8 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. for assistance with reservations.


The city of Los Angeles is also offering the vaccine to anyone in Los Angeles County who is 65 or older, through a different online portal. That website connects patients to sites including Dodger Stadium, San Fernando Recreation Park, Lincoln Park, Hansen Dam and Crenshaw Christian Center.

Orange County residents can sign up using the Othena app. Information for Riverside County residents can be found at the Riverside University Health System, while San Bernardino County residents can find vaccine information on the county’s website. Ventura County is offering vaccinations to residents 75 and older, who can sign up for appointments online.

Times staff writer Maura Dolan in San Francisco contributed to this report. Wosen and Pearlman write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.