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Vaccine resistance may hobble Orange County’s July 4 herd immunity goal

Orange County residents line up for COVID-19 vaccinations at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.
Orange County residents crowd the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim to receive COVID-19 vaccinations on Jan. 13. Five months later, demand for shots has plummeted, officials report.
(File Photo)

Operation Independence — Orange County’s goal to reach herd immunity against COVID-19 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 Thursday.

OCHA reports about 54% of the county’s 3.2 million residents over age 16 have so far 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 much later in the calendar 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 Monday of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 — which opened appointments to approximately 159,392 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 total population.

Edison High School cheerleaders during a Spring signing day ceremony on April 14.
Edison High School cheerleaders during a spring signing day ceremony on April 14. The FDA this week approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for use in children ages 12 to 15.
(File Photo)

OCHA began offering appointments to younger residents on Thursday 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 on Thursday, Chinsio-Kwong reported.

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 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.”

So, about an hour after Jeffery saw people on Facebook talking about vaccines being made available to those under 16, she’d already scheduled an appointment 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.”

Orange County Supervisors vote to “pause” digital vaccination record program after hundreds of people spoke out against nonexistent “vaccine passports” at a county Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

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 for a shot.

When she heard Thursday’s news, she got online right away, scheduling Nikolas for a slot next week 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 reasoned.

A much harder sell was Bendis’ 21-year-old son, a college 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,” she said Thursday. “So, he’s actually going for his first dose tomorrow — I’m thrilled.”

Chinsio-Kwong said as vaccine interest slides, health officials are urging Orange County’s vaccinated residents, like Bendis, to start having serious conversations with friends and loved ones still hesitant about receiving a shot.

“There needs to be a grassroots effort in the community to reach out to those who may still have questions,” she said. “[Because] 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.

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