Vaccine resistance may hobble Orange County’s July 4 herd immunity goal
Operation Independence — Orange County’s goal to reach herd immunity against the coronavirus by the Fourth of July holiday — may be a bust if those hesitant to get vaccinated don’t act soon.
Touted as a target by which health officials would complete a countywide vaccination program, the dream is fading fast as the demand for first doses plummets and vaccine shipments from the state are turned away.
“If we want to get to herd immunity by July 4, we’d need at least 600,000 people in our community to want to get a COVID vaccine between the beginning of this week and July,” Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, a deputy health officer for the Orange County Health Care Agency, said last week.
OCHA reports about 54% of the county’s 3.2 million residents over age 16 have received at least one dose of the vaccine, a far cry from the 70% required to meet the lowest threshold for herd immunity.
The demand for appointments has declined 75% since April, causing the agency to announce last week it would shutter its four remaining super vaccination point-of-dispensing sites as of June 5 and instead concentrate efforts on community and mobile clinics.
Chinsio-Kwong said the agency has turned down its weekly allocation of Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots for the past two weeks so supply would not exceed demand.
If such trends continue, the once-vaunted goal of returning Orange County residents to pre-pandemic levels of health and safety will not be achieved until later in the year.
“At the current rate of people coming in for their first doses, realistically, we’re looking at Labor Day,” Chinsio-Kwong said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 — which opened appointments to about 159,400 Orange County adolescents — could spur efforts to reach herd immunity.
Still, even if every child from age 12 to 15 were to receive the Pfizer vaccine, that would only account for 4.9% of Orange County’s population.
OCHA began offering appointments to younger residents last week through its Othena smartphone app, in what Chinsio-Kwong referred to as a “soft launch.”
Because of its approval for use by younger populations, Pfizer is the only vaccine allocation the agency is still accepting. A batch of 28,000 doses arrived Thursday, Chinsio-Kwong said.
Huntington Beach resident Emma Jeffery didn’t wait for official word to drop before booking an appointment for her 14-year-old daughter, Tegenn.
Born with a congenital heart defect, the teen’s health condition kept her family on pins and needles throughout the pandemic, even after Jeffery, her husband and their 16-year-old son had gotten their vaccinations.
“We haven’t gone inside a grocery store for the last 15 months. We haven’t even been to a restaurant,” she said. “We’ve literally been like a little island in our house.”
Jeffery had already scheduled an appointment for Tegenn when, about an hour later, she saw people on Facebook talking about vaccines being made available to those under 16 at a CVS Pharmacy in Fountain Valley.
“I was continuously checking my tabs on the computer — it was exactly like getting a concert ticket,” she said. “I was desperate for her to get the shot.”
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Julia Bendis, a professional matchmaker who lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, was vaccinated at the county’s Soka University super site in early March but had to wait much longer for her 15-year-old son, Nikolas, to become eligible.
When she heard last week’s news, she got online right away, scheduling Nikolas for a slot at a Laguna Woods Rite Aid — one week before his 16th birthday.
“If this is something we’re going to have to get every year, we might as well get it now,” she said.
A much harder sell was Nikolas’ 21-year-old brother, Tyler, a UC Santa Cruz junior who’s maintained skepticism about the vaccine. It took some convincing from his parents for him to change his viewpoint.
“We told him he was probably not going to be able to go to college in person or participate in an internship he’d gotten,” Nikolas said. So he went for his first dose. “I’m thrilled,” his mother said.
Chinsio-Kwong said as vaccine interest slides, health officials are urging Orange County’s vaccinated residents to have serious conversations with friends and loved ones still hesitant about receiving a shot.
“There needs to be a grass-roots effort in the community to reach out to those who may still have questions,” she said. “The community knows best what barriers and challenges are still present and need to be overcome.”
If Orange County truly wants to achieve independence from COVID-19, she added, that’s the best and only hope.
Cardine writes for Times Community News.
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