San Diego County is expanding its COVID-19 vaccination capabilities with the opening of a second "Vaccination Superstation," this time in the South Bay -- a region hit hard by the virus.
The new vaccination site can be found at the old Sears building in the Chula Vista Center Mall at 565 Broadway. It opened at 10 a.m. Thursday. That location also serves as a COVID-19 testing center and was selected as the vaccine superstation because the community was aware of its presence.
“In choosing a site for the superstation, we wanted to make sure that it was a location that was familiar to our communities," San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas said in a news conference on Thursday. "We wanted to make sure that it was close to transportation.”
The county is teaming up with Sharp Healthcare to administer vaccines at this location, by appointment only, seven days per week. The site will aim to administer 5,000 vaccines every day to San Diegans in Phase 1A of the vaccine rollout, which includes health care workers, those in long-term nursing facilities, and locals age 75 and older.
Sharp Grossmont Hospital CEO Scott Evans said he believes the superstation has the potential to administer more than its daily goal of 5,000 vaccines, but he did not elaborate. He did however say that on its first day, the site will administer 1,800 shots.
The location features 40 vaccination stations and "several hundred" monitoring stations, Evans said.
“They (vaccine recipients) will sit and be monitored for 15 minutes to be sure they do not have any reactions," Evans said. "Of course, if they do have reactions, we’re prepared for those reactions with an intensive monitoring station as well as a plan to send people who are being vaccinated to the appropriate medical services.”
The site's first day open appeared to go well for patients with appointment, according to John Nakano, who brought his 84-year-old mother to receive her first dose.
“This was really super smooth. I think so far, they’ve done a great job,” Nakano said. "There’s a lot of stuff that’s kind of scary being put out there, but it seems to be not true so far. So, I think people are being well taken care of."
Unlike the Petco Park superstation, patients can walk-up for their appointments, instead of driving through the Padres Tailgate parking lot. In Chula Vista, people park outside an old Sears store that has been vacant for months. They then walk through a line through a series of checkpoints to get their vaccine inside the old Sears store.
According to Chula Vista Mayor Mary Casillas Salas, the city's local fire department will help give patients their shots.
“Now at this South Bay vaccination superstation, our Chula Vista Fire Department and firefighter paramedics will be administering vaccines to eligible residents," she said.
The site will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and until 5 p.m. during the weekend. It will be walk-up (by appointment) only, rather than drive-thru.
Several South Bay communities have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of the highest COVID-19 case rates exist in the South Bay, with National City at 125, Chula Vista at 106.1, and Imperial Beach at 88. The 92154 ZIP code, which services most of San Ysidro, checks in with a case rate of 156.8.
COVID-19 cases among Chula Vista residents account for 11.6% of the county's 218,555 total cases, second only to the city of San Diego's 39%.
“We are just so thankful to the county for really focusing so much here in the South Bay,” said Salas.
“This area has really been hit hard by COVID,” agreed Scott Evans, PharmD.
Vargas' office said this Vaccination Superstation in Chula Vista is a direct result of the county's recent passing of a resolution "calling for a collaborative, data-driven, and equitable response to COVID-19" that was introduced by Vargas and County Chair Nathan Fletcher.
"The County of San Diego has worked diligently to ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines, especially to the communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic," a press release from Vargas' office stated.
During Thursday's press conference, Chula Vista councilmember Steve Padilla, who contracted the virus in March 2020, reflected on his personal experience and expressed relief that the South Bay city will now have a large vaccine site.
"I’m thinking in this moment about how important this kind of collaboration is to prevent sickness and death and to keep people from losing the ones they love," he said. "I’m also thinking in this moment about the 400,000 plus Americans, more than were lost in World War II, to this virus."
The Coronavirus Vaccine in San Diego
San Diego County's first "Vaccination Superstation" opened on Jan. 11 at Tailgate Park near Petco Park, in a parking lot at 1235 K Street. That site is operated by UC San Diego Health, in partnership with the county.
Just two days after the downtown superstation opened, there were some snags.
A string of allergic reactions linked to a batch of Moderna vaccines administered at the Vaccination Superstation caused delays for those waiting in line to be vaccinated on Jan. 13.
Six people experienced reactions during a 15-minute, post-vaccine observation period. Health workers at the site stopped using that batch of vaccines out of an abundance of caution.
On Jan. 17, the California Department of Public Health recommended a pause on distributing that specific batch of COVID-19 vaccinations linked to the allergic reactions in downtown San Diego.
State epidemiologist Erica S. Pan recommended vaccine providers pause the administration of lot 41L20A of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. More than 330,000 doses of the lot were distributed to 287 providers across California. The batch is now under investigation.
One health care worker who experienced an allergic reaction at the Tailgate Park vaccination site said she couldn’t feel her tongue and had neck pain after being given the shot.
“They gave me 50 milliliters of Benadryl and then they started monitoring me even closer,” Diana Cannizzo, a local health care worker, told NBC 7. “In the meantime, somebody else had come in a gurney."
On Wednesday night, California health officials said it's safe to resume using the batch of Moderna coronavirus vaccine that had been halted after being linked to the illnesses. The decision frees up more than 300,000 doses to counties, cities, and hospitals struggling to obtain supplies.
The superstations in San Diego County are part of a larger effort across California to turn sites like stadiums and parking lots into vaccination centers as COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the state.
Meanwhile, the county runs other vaccination sites -- also by appointment only, and for those who are eligible based on the tiered rollout plan. -Those locations can be found here.
According to the county's demographic vaccination data, 15% of vaccines administered so far in San Diego County have gone to residents of the Health and Human Services Agency's "South" region.
California’s Phase 1A group of those who are eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine includes critical health care workers, nursing home workers and their patients. The state recently opened that tier to anyone age 65 and older, and in San Diego County, public health officials admitted the county did not yet have enough vaccines for the expansion.
But health care systems that have extra doses of the vaccine available are able to vaccinate at their own paces, the county said.
To that end, Scripps Health announced it would begin administering the COVID-19 vaccine to patients age 65 and older – with an appointment – on Jan. 20.
Scripps Health Dr. Ghazala Sharieff, Chief Medical Officer for Acute Care, said within a few hours of the announcement, Scripps already had 6,800 patients scheduled for appointments.
The health group said the doses of the coronavirus vaccine being used on patients age 65 and older are doses left over from Scripps’ initial efforts to vaccinate health care workers. As of Jan. 19, Scripps said it had about 1,000 doses left.
No extra doses have yet been provided from the federal or local government for the 65+ group. Sharieff said by scheduling so many appointments, they were taking "a bit of a leap of faith" that the doses were coming through their government partnerships.
While Sharieff acknowledges that 6,800 patients is a large number, there are still tens of thousands of patients in their system that are still anxiously waiting for the vaccine.
"I can't get everybody right away but it's a start, so I want to just ask for a little bit of patience," Sharieff said. "The fact that we're rolling this out as quickly as we can is exciting. As soon as we get more vaccine, will open up our clinics."
Meanwhile, the only other health care system in San Diego County that has been able to facilitate vaccinations of the 65+ group is UC San Diego Health.
As of Jan. 19, UC San Diego Health hoped to be able to vaccinate about 500 patients a day at their facilities "in addition to the nearly 10,000 UC San Diego Health employees who have already received their first doses in Phase 1A."
The health care system was prioritizing those with co-morbidities and those at severe risk for COVID-19 infection and contacting those patients directly for vaccination appointments.
Kaiser Permanente, on the other hand, was still only vaccinating health care workers and senior care workers and their patients due to their limited supply of vaccines.
"The recent expansion of eligibility by the state to include individuals over 65 years old has challenged the entire health system including Kaiser Permanente," a spokesperson for Kaiser said in a statement to NBC 7.
The hospital said it has received an average of 40,000 single doses of the vaccine a week for their entire statewide system, which is still only enough to accommodate the Phase 1A group.
San Diego County's public health system was making moves to vaccinate the region's older population but was still unable to open vaccinations to everyone 65 and older.
On Monday, officials announced they would open up their vaccination sites to those 75 and older, creating confusion at the large "Vaccination Super Center" at Petco Park.
Officials said the move was prompted by a slowdown at COVID-19 vaccination sites as well as efforts to vaccinate the people most at risk for complications from the coronavirus. San Diegans who fall into the eligible group and cannot receive an appointment through their health care provider can create appointments here.
San Diego County said as more doses become available next month, vaccinations will expand to more than 600,000 people in group Phase 1B.