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Editorial: Vaccine mixed messages are a failure by government at all levels

Mayor Eric Garcetti and Gov. Gavin Newsom tour the Dodger Stadium vaccination site
Mayor Eric Garcetti, right, and Gov. Gavin Newsom tour the mass COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium on Friday.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Some confusion about COVID-19 vaccinations — how to get one, where to sign up, etc. — was inevitable, given the speed of the rollout and uncertainty about how many doses might be available from week to week. It’s the largest inoculation campaign in U.S. history, and data about availability change by the day if not the hour.

But the chaos sowed at every level of government has made the confusion worse. Operation Warp Speed was politicized from Day 1, as President Trump used the vaccine initiative as a reelection gambit, contradicting time estimates set by the experts and exaggerating the speed with which vaccine doses could be produced and distributed. Once the first vaccines were available, the number of doses ready to be shipped to each state has been changing weekly, making it hard to plan for dispersal.

California state officials own some of the blame as well for creating an overly complicated system for determining eligibility and for not communicating pandemic response details with locals. So do Los Angeles County officials who have sent mixed messages to Angelenos about who can get vaccinated and when.

To explain, we need to backtrack to last week, when federal officials urged states to expand eligibility for inoculations to anyone over 65 as a way to ensure no doses go to waste. Each vial of the two vaccines currently available contains multiple doses that must be thrown away within six hours if not used.

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States, including California, agreed to the expansion — though they did so on the mistaken belief that the federal government was about to ship more vaccine from the stockpile that had been held back for second doses. That turned out to be a final COVID-19 deception by the Trump administration, because days later it became clear that there was no stockpile to release. However, the state left it up to counties in California to determine if they had the supply to expand access beyond the initial target group of healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

Los Angeles County Director of Public Health Barbara Ferrer made it clear at that point that the county was not yet in a position to expand beyond those first two groups. She predicted that it would be February before there would be enough supply to open up appointments for other people. It was not a well-received message among some, particularly when other counties were inviting all seniors to be inoculated.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl echoed Ferrer’s message Saturday in her newsletter to constituents, and Supervisor Janice Hahn suggested in her own Saturday newsletter that the county should at least have a standby list of people 65 and older to receive leftover vaccines at the end of each day. On Monday, supervisor and board Chairwoman Hilda Solis announced a surprise reversal of course, issuing an executive order that made vaccines available to people 65 and older starting Thursday through appointments on the county’s COVID-19 website.

Yeah, that’s not confusing.

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This raises two related issues. First, why aren’t the five members of the county’s governing board on the same page with one another and the public health department? And second, is this really smart to throw open the doors when there’s no way the county can offer vaccines to more than a tiny fraction of the approximately 1.3 million people over 65 in Los Angeles County at present?

During a Tuesday news briefing held by Solis (with no other members of the board speaking), Ferrer acknowledged that the county has received just 685,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far from the state, though she expects 168,000 more this week, and most are needed for healthcare workers. How many of the county’s seniors might be able to get a shot is entirely contingent on how many doses the county receives in the future, which is a unknown quantity. Making matters worse, about 10% of the doses received by the state have been put on hold while a cluster of allergic reactions in people who received shots from one batch of the Moderna vaccine are investigated.

In other words, it will probably still be February at least before the vast majority of L.A.'s seniors can receive their first dose, as Ferrer said from the beginning. Nevertheless, this announcement will likely precipitate an onslaught of calls from people who heard the news and are now desperate for the protective shot, most of whom will inevitably be frustrated when they can’t get an appointment.

We don’t expect perfection in this historic vaccination effort. But we do expect that elected officials work to lessen the confusion, not exacerbate it.


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