Advertisement
Share

L.A. COVID-19 vaccination pace plunges as officials work to expand access

Vehicles line up at Hansen Dam
Vehicles line up at the Hansen Dam COVID-19 vaccination site on Feb. 23 in Los Angeles.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Providers throughout Los Angeles County administered 144,000 fewer COVID-19 vaccine doses last week compared with the week prior — the clearest evidence yet that the demand for doses has dropped significantly.

The trend has sparked concerns in some corners that it may take longer than expected for the nation’s most populous county to reach the level of widespread community inoculation experts believe is necessary to end the pandemic, if it ever does, and has officials rethinking their operations in hopes of getting more people to roll up their sleeves.

“At this point, the goal is for us to make it as easy as possible for people to come in and feel comfortable getting their vaccine,” county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a news briefing.

During the week of April 17 to April 23, there were 611,592 doses administered countywide — an average of roughly 87,000 a day, according to figures Ferrer presented Monday.

From April 24 to April 30, the pace tailed off significantly. Only 467,134 doses were doled out, an average of about 67,000 per day.

Advertisement

Ferrer foreshadowed the plunge last week, saying that first-dose appointments had decreased by about 50% countywide.

“This is not because we didn’t have supply,” she said.

Experts say there are a number of reasons the vaccine rollout may be slowing. Some people may be uncertain about the vaccine’s safety — or resistant to getting it at all. Others may believe they don’t need to be inoculated, thinking their youth or health will shield them from the worst ravages of COVID-19.

Though virtually all the coronavirus-related news coming out of L.A. County has been positive lately, officials say it would be premature to declare victory in the long-running battle against the pandemic.

“We have some urgency here because the more people that get vaccinated, the less the risks are of both known and unknown variants of concern taking hold here and getting us back to a place where more people are dying, more people are in hospitals and we have more cases,” Ferrer said.

But she said the onus is on the county to make it as easy as possible to get vaccinated, and to work to dispel myths and alleviate residents’ concerns.

“We’re not here to force people to go and get vaccinated,” she said. “We’re here to present a lot of information to help you see and understand how powerful these vaccines are, how much of a difference it makes.”

Advertisement

There are a number of explanations why certain groups of people might be more hesitant than others — such as concerns about vaccines’ safety and distrust of government assurances because of past abuses by officials among people of color.

Some people who have survived COVID-19 may think they don’t need a vaccination, when, in fact, immunity from natural infection may not be as fully protective or long-lived as from a subsequent vaccination. And some people may be in denial about COVID-19 and don’t believe the disease exists or is of great importance, said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley, medical epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Kim-Farley said public health officials will need to work with behavioral scientists to craft specific messages for people in each of those categories. A high priority should go to encouraging vaccinations among people of color because of their communities’ higher risk of infection, severe disease and death.

Advertisement

Government officials should also be taking special care to reach out to essential workers and make it as convenient as possible for them to be vaccinated. That includes government officials asking workplaces to offer onsite vaccination clinics and to give workers paid time off to deal with the usually minor side effects — such as a sore arm, a mild fever or feeling fatigued — that can result in a missed day of work after each vaccination dose.

Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, a UC San Francisco epidemiologist, in a recent tweet urged policymakers to focus on easy steps that can be taken to encourage less-eager essential workers to get vaccinated. According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, more than half of essential workers are worried about missing work if side effects make them feel sick, and 4 out of 10 workers are unsure if they’re eligible to get a vaccine (everyone 16 and older are, and it’s free).

That’s why Bibbins-Domingo suggested that better information and paid time off would help. “Focus on what’s easy,” she said.

About 54% of L.A. County residents 16 and older had received at least one vaccine dose as of April 28, public health data show. But only about 36% of Angelenos in that age range are fully vaccinated — meaning they’ve received either the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or both required doses of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna.

Advertisement

Roughly half of all Californians have received at least one shot to date, and 32% are fully vaccinated, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts estimate that a significant share of the population, usually pegged at or above 80%, would need to get vaccinated to deprive the coronavirus of new people to infect.

In a bid to reverse the recent slide, COVID-19 vaccine sites run by the city of Los Angeles will be open six days this week as part of a wider effort to expand access.

Along with the additional operating day, city officials said they will provide more opportunities for people to get vaccinated without having to make an appointment and open a new clinic with expanded night hours.

Advertisement

A wireless emergency alert containing vaccine information will also be sent citywide Monday afternoon, according to Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“Our city and country stand at a critical turning point in our fight to defeat COVID-19 — and just as we have in every phase of this crisis, we are meeting the moment with urgent action: by rolling up our sleeves and getting shots into the arms of every Angeleno,” he said in a statement Sunday.

L.A.'s vaccine sites at Cal State L.A., Hansen Dam, San Fernando Park, Lincoln Park, Pierce College, Crenshaw Christian Center, Los Angeles Southwest College, USC, Century City and — for the moment — Dodger Stadium will operate Monday through Saturday this week.

The city’s eight mobile clinics will remain on their typical Tuesday through Saturday schedule.

Advertisement

Appointment-free vaccinations also will be available at all mobile sites as well as the locations at Lincoln Park, San Fernando Park, Pierce College, USC, L.A. Southwest College, Century City and Cal State L.A., officials said.

One clinic, at the South Park Recreation Center, will be open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — providing a nighttime option for those whose schedules would otherwise make it difficult to get vaccinated.

All told, city officials estimate they will have the capacity to administer about 260,000 doses this week, the most ever.

Advertisement

“Los Angeles has enough doses to keep our momentum going, protect our communities against new variants and end this pandemic,” Garcetti said. “So we all need to do our part to encourage our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

While eliminating barriers to vaccine access and availability is one key piece of the puzzle, officials say an increasingly important part of the strategy moving forward needs to be convincing those who may be on the fence about getting inoculated.

According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which are based on survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau, only about 11% of Californians are thought to be vaccine hesitant, a lower rate than in all but four states.

Advertisement

However, reluctance to receive the vaccine is not uniform across the state, and having high levels of resistance in particular pockets would still give the coronavirus ample opportunities to spread.

To address the concerns of holdouts, health officials regularly point to the high level of protection the vaccines provide against COVID-19.

Along with that pragmatic push is a tantalizing pull: the prospect of getting back to pre-pandemic normalcy.

Advertisement

In California, which continues to record one of the lowest coronavirus case rates in the nation, many long-imposed restrictions on businesses are being relaxed or rescinded — allowing residents more freedom to go grab a bite to eat, see a movie or even visit Disneyland.

The state’s hospitals, once stretched to their limits, are now caring for fewer coronavirus-positive patients than at almost any other point during the pandemic.

And the number of Californians dying from COVID-19 has also tumbled. L.A. County reported no new deaths related to COVID-19 on both Sunday and Monday — figures that, though likely an undercount because of weekend reporting delays, nonetheless represents the progress the region has made in beating back the pandemic.

Advertisement

Conditions have improved to the point that officials have even set a target date to fully reopen the state’s economy: June 15.

But that progress, while hopeful, isn’t inevitable, officials warn. Staying on the recovery path will require more Californians to be vaccinated and, in the meantime, continued adherence to the public health protocols that have been put in place to blunt coronavirus transmission.


Advertisement