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Flooded with Hollywood and media workers, Pasadena cancels COVID-19 vaccine clinic

A closeup of a gloved hand holding a syringe.
A nurse prepares a COVID-19 vaccine shot. The city of Pasadena canceled an upcoming clinic because too many unauthorized people had registered for inoculations.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Pasadena officials on Tuesday canceled a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for senior citizens, grocery store employees and other essential workers after hundreds of people who were not eligible for the shots signed up for appointments.

People who did not yet qualify for the vaccine under state guidelines claimed about 900 of the 1,500 slots at a clinic that was designed for people older than 65 and essential workers who live or work in Pasadena, city spokeswoman Lisa Derderian said.

Many of the appointments were booked by people who worked in the media and in Hollywood, Derderian said, including at production companies, streaming TV services and news outlets and on the sets of soap operas.

“Hundreds signed up within the first hour,” Derderian said. “It was like rapid fire.”

The Pasadena Public Health Department last week sent an email to healthcare workers, senior citizens, child-care workers, teachers and food workers who had expressed interest in getting the vaccine, telling them they could book appointments at a clinic at Pasadena City College.

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The email told workers they would be required to present proof that they worked in an eligible industry and lived or worked in Pasadena. The email also included a registration link to California’s vaccination appointment system, CalVax, and provided slots for five days, including Thursday.

False information in texts and emails led some to unknowingly jump the vaccine line using special access codes meant for the needy.

On Monday, a Los Angeles Times reporter who had received a link to sign up for an appointment alerted the city, Derderian said. Officials opened the registration system and saw that hundreds of people with jobs in Hollywood and the media had claimed available slots, she said.

The registration link for Thursday’s vaccination clinic had spread quickly. A warning in red letters, telling users not to forward the links, had failed to keep the links private.

The CalVax website does not allow health departments or vaccine clinics to limit registrations to people who live or work in certain ZIP Codes. That means people who are not eligible for vaccines, or not eligible at a particular site, can still fill out the registration forms and secure an appointment.

Some patients said they thought they were eligible because the page included a drop-down menu that asked users to select their industry, including “Service — entertainment, performance.” A warning message in dark red letters, directly above the form, read: “Vaccine supply is limited. Before registering, please check to see if you are eligible to sign up.”

California has limited vaccine access to people 65 and older, as well as essential workers in food and agriculture, education and child care, healthcare and emergency services. No other essential workers are currently eligible.

The Pasadena health department tries to improve its screening process by calling every person who lists an address outside the city on the registration form, Derderian said. Many are restaurant workers and grocery store employees who are eligible for shots and commute to the city for work, she said. Officials remind them to bring a pay stub, a letter from their employer or another form of documentation that shows they work within the city boundaries.

Calling 900 people within a few days to verify their eligibility or ask them not to come was just too much, Derderian said. The city decided to reschedule the clinic. No new date has been confirmed.

Some L.A.-area private schools used restricted access codes and other strategies to get staff vaccinated while the county’s supply was limited. As of Monday, the scramble will be on for all schools.

“We would have hundreds of people showing up who would not have qualified, and they would have been turned away,” Derderian said. “I’m sure the situation would have escalated in many cases.”

She added: “We do check for ID. We will turn you away if you don’t meet the current tier, if you don’t live in town or work in town. Our health officer will not risk her credentials or the health department’s licensing or the city’s reputation. We are very strict in adhering to the guidelines.”

Canceling the clinic was particularly difficult news for senior citizens who had struggled to get appointments, and who have been largely shut off from the world for a year, Derderian said. Some cried when they learned their appointments had been moved, she said.

Local officials have complained that the state’s technology for making and managing vaccine appointments is flawed, and does not allow them to easily reserve vaccine appointments for people in communities where infection rates are high and vaccination rates are low.

The problems in Pasadena mirrored a situation in Los Angeles County in which registration codes meant to reserve vaccination appointments for residents of communities hit hard by COVID-19 wound up in the hands of more privileged Angelenos, including private-school teachers and Hollywood workers, as The Times previously reported.

Health departments have traditionally used CalVax to schedule flu vaccine clinics, and some — including Pasadena and Long Beach — are using the software to schedule COVID-19 vaccinations too.

Other agencies, including Los Angeles County, have transitioned to a new state-run website called My Turn, which is specifically designed for the pandemic. The software has its own limitations and has been hammered by complaints of glitches and compatibility problems.

Times staff writer Melody Gutierrez contributed to this report.


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