California will soon expand its list of people eligible for coronavirus vaccinations by another 4 million to 6 million people by adding the severely disabled and those with health conditions that put them at high risk for infection and death, state Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said Friday.
Among those who will become eligible on March 15 are people with certain cancer, heart, lung and kidney conditions, as well as pregnant women, those with Down syndrome, organ transplant recipients and the severely obese. They join people 65 and over and those in high-risk job descriptions who already were eligible under the state's plan.
California has been plagued by vaccine shortages and Ghaly couldn’t say how long it will take for the state to vaccinate the estimated 17 million to 19 million people who will be eligible for the vaccine once the new additions are made.
“Without that crystal ball on the allocation it’s going to be really hard to answer," he said. The nation's most populous state can expect to receive more than 1 million doses each week at least for the next few weeks, Ghaly said.
Each of the current vaccines — Pfizer and Moderna — require two doses for full effectiveness. So it takes 1 million shots to cover 500,000 people.
Judy Mark, the president of Disability Voices United, thanked the state for moving up vaccinations for disabled people but said it should be immediate.
“The March 15 effective date may be too late for many people with disabilities who could die from COVID in the meantime,” she said in a statement.
Ghaly said the extra time is needed for the state to ramp up capacity. Some people with disabilities or certain health conditions will be harder to reach because they need to be vaccinated at home, he said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state recognizes that those with certain physical and intellectual disabilities are “uniquely vulnerable.”
“I want the disability community to know, we’ve heard you, and we’re going to do more and better to provide access, even with the scarcity,” he said while touring a mass vaccination site in San Francisco.
California is emerging from its worst stage of the pandemic. New virus cases and hospitalizations have fallen dramatically in the past three weeks, and deaths that topped 3,500 a week also have started to decline, though more slowly.
The state began its vaccine rollout in December as cases and hospitalizations were exploding. Officials first focused on vaccinating people based on the level of risk from their work. Health care workers were the first in line and the state then added educators, farm workers and emergency service workers. People in long-term care facilities and those 65 and over are also eligible.
Once the state gets through those groups, it plans to move to an age-based system rather than one based on job description. The state hasn’t fully developed a plan for the age-based criteria.
“We are working to determine what that age span will be and when that date will be triggered. It is going to be largely driven by supply of vaccine,” Ghaly said.
The state decided to add people with disabilities and health conditions of any age after receiving criticism that it was failing to protect those people at higher risk of infection and death from COVID-19.
Still, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s surgeon general, said physicians will have to exercise judgment and not allow everyone to be vaccinated.
“It’s really crucial for providers really to exercise a fair amount of recognition of the scarce supply to ensure that those who are at highest risk are able to get access to the vaccine,” she said Friday on KGO-TV.
That’s not going to be easy for doctors, said Dr. Louise Aronson, geriatrics professor at the University of California, San Francisco.
“It’s going to be hard for patients and it’s going to be hard for clinicians, but the way we get through it is for all of us to prioritize the highest risk and to stay a little more patient longer, which is one of the hardest asks at this moment in history,” she said.
California has opened many mass vaccination centers in the last several weeks but they aren’t operating close to full capacity because of vaccine shortages. The city of Los Angeles temporarily closed vaccination sites at Dodger Stadium and four other locations until supplies could be replenished.
"We’re all frustrated. We know we could do much more if we had available doses," said Dr. Paul Simon, LA County's chief science officer. He said the county could administer about 600,000 doses a week but is getting about 200,000.
California has administered 5.5 million doses to date, and more than 1 million people have gotten both.
Also on Friday, the state released data showing the age, race, gender and county of people who have been vaccinated. It only covers health workers, long-term care residents and people 65 and older, meaning its not an accurate reflection of California's entire population, state officials said.
The incomplete data is just one piece of information officials are relying on as they try to distribute vaccines to California's most vulnerable people. The state has not released a breakdown of vaccines by ZIP code, which can be used to measure whether people in disadvantaged neighborhoods are getting vaccinated, but it did provide demographic breakdown of vaccinations by county.
The data shows nearly a third of vaccines have gone to white people, nearly 16% to Latinos, more than 13% to Asian Americans and less than 3% to Black people. Of the rest, 14% went to people who identified as multi-racial, 12% to those listed as “other," and the rest to “unknown." The state relies on self-identification or data from health providers.
Associated Press writers Janie Har in San Francisco and Amy Taxin in Orange County contributed.