By Amita Sharma, KPBS, January 13 2021
As new COVID-19 cases again surge through senior care facilities in San Diego and throughout the state, getting vaccines into the arms of residents and caregivers has been spotty and slow, according to doctors and advocates.
“We are getting calls every day from residents in long-term care facilities and from their families saying, ‘Where is it?’” said Mike Dark, staff lawyer for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. “They say: ‘We know the vaccines exist. We know they’ve been set aside for us. We’ve not even heard from our facility what the plan is on actually getting them to us.’”
Statewide, only a small fraction of elderly people and caregivers in long-term care have been given the shots, Dark said.
Scripps physician Karl Steinberg said less than 20% of people in San Diego County long-term care communities have been vaccinated, even though they are among the first groups prioritized to get the shots because they are at high risk of either becoming severely ill or dying from the disease.
“While I’m heartened by the fact that the vaccine is getting out to our nursing homes, I’m a little bit disappointed it’s not getting out as fast as it should and unfortunately we’re risking more deaths,” said Steinberg, who also sits on the San Diego County COVID-19 Vaccine Clinical Advisory Group.
The slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine comes as area senior care facilities are once again overwhelmed by new cases.
There are now at least 2,700 active COVID-19 cases at nursing homes and assisted living facilities in San Diego County, a 13-fold increase from April, according to state figures. The recent bump followed the recent Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Statewide, there are more than 23,000 current coronavirus cases at senior care communities.
Dark blamed the slow pace of distributing the vaccine to this vulnerable population on the federal government’s decision to leave the process up to states, counties and facilities. The result is a patchwork of different systems with varying degrees of success.
“The problem is that decision-making has become so dispersed that there is no longer one person or agency that people can look to make the kind of important calls and decisions that must be made for us to get this vaccine out quickly,” Dark said.
And there is little publicly available information on which agency is tracking exactly how many senior care facilities have received the vaccine and how many are still without the shots. The few numbers that have been released are incomplete.
San Diego County spokesman Michael Workman said the agency is getting vaccine information in “bits and pieces” but ultimately it will likely be part of its upcoming dashboard.
“It is not our information to track and we rely on the entities that do play a role to provide that information, those commercial pharmacies federally contracted to vaccinate these facilities,” Workman said in an email.
The California Department of Social Services (DSS) and Department of Public Health (CDPH), both of which oversee senior care facilities, have not yet published vaccination tracking figures.
In response to a question from KPBS regarding how many nursing home residents in California had been vaccinated so far, CDPH wrote: “We are working on launching a vaccine dashboard and will let you know when that is up.”
‘Exceptionally bad idea’
In December, California signed on to the federal government’s COVID-19 partnership with the nationwide pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens to deliver vaccines to elderly people and caregivers at long-term care facilities.
“Vaccinating those most vulnerable among us is critical to fighting this virus,” said Governor Newsom at the time. “By leveraging CVS and Walgreens resources, we can effectively deploy vaccines to residents and staff at our long-term care facilities, which are at higher risk of Covid transmission – and do it at no cost to the state or local government.”
Yet, as of Monday, CVS had reported administering just 43,346 vaccines at California nursing homes and 948 at assisted living facilities. This represents about half of the state’s nursing home population and a tiny fraction of people in assisted living, according to state figures. The pharmacy refused to say how many local senior care facilities had been immunized.
It is likely that Walgreens has vaccinated more people in long-term care places. However, the company did not respond to requests for comment.
The governor’s office, in a statement posted on its website, said the goal is to finish up with nursing homes by the end of this month and then move on to assisted living facilities.
Steinberg said it is now clear that the federal government’s decision to partner with the corporations was a mistake.
“It was an exceptionally bad idea for the feds to give this to CVS and Walgreens who don’t know anything about how facilities run,” Steinberg said.
In a written response to questions from KPBS, CVS said it was equipped to handle the vast and complicated undertaking.
“CVS Health staff are familiar with these settings and populations, having provided COVID-19 testing services in skilled nursing facilities and operating on-site seasonal flu vaccination clinics at thousands of assisted living facilities every year,” the company wrote.