At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, everyone seemed to have the same question for Humboldt County Health Officer Dr. Ian Hoffman: What’s the plan for getting the public vaccinated?
More than 10 months after the first county resident was diagnosed with COVID 19, Humboldt’s case count is skyrocketing, nearly two dozen residents have died, and the local economy remains hobbled by virus-triggered restrictions. Everyone is desperately reaching for the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.
But it hasn’t even been a month since the FDA authorized emergency use of two COVID vaccines, and on Tuesday Hoffman said it’s just not possible to lay out a concrete timeline at this early stage.
“There is a plan,” he said, “but the plan has to be fluid because it all depends on how much vaccine is coming down the road — and we just don’t know the answer to that.”
Humboldt County has received 5,500 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in the three weeks since the first shipment arrived. As of Tuesday, about 3,600 of those doses had been administered, and Hoffman said the remaining 2,000 or so should be administered “in the coming weeks.”
While the county’s Public Health Branch is acting as the coordinator for vaccine distribution, it’s local health care partners who are responsible for actually administering the shots. So far, those partners include the four local hospitals — St. Joseph, Mad River, Redwood Memorial and Jerold Phelps — along with Open Door Community Health Centers and the United Indian Health Services.
Other partners are coming online. Pharmacies have partnered with the CDC, and Hoffman said this program allowed CVS to vaccinate folks at a local skilled nursing facility on Monday. Safeway, Costco and Cloney’s pharmacies are expected to come online with vaccine delivery in the coming weeks, though Hoffman said the bureaucratic process is cumbersome.
But we’re still very early in a vaccine rollout that will take months to complete. Speaking to the board Tuesday, Sheriff William Honsal said that he and others in a statewide sheriffs organization were recently briefed by Dr. Mark Ghaly, Secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency.
“As far as this being open to the public, a vaccine is likely six to nine months away from being readily available,” Honsal said. “That was something that was kind of shocking to me … .”
The County’s Joint Information Center on Wednesday noted that we’re still in Phase 1A of the state’s multi-phase vaccination rollout plan. That means the vaccines shipped here are still reserved for health care workers and residents of long-term residential care facilities.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses — administered three to four weeks apart — to be fully effective. Second doses started arriving this week, and Hoffman said that will be most of what gets delivered to Humboldt County over the next two weeks. “We expect to see very little new vaccine coming in,” he said.
The constriction in the supply chain is coming at the federal level, not locally, Hoffman explained. “As we’ve said all along, the limiting factor is going to be how much vaccine we are getting and at what rate.”
While many of us may feel impatient to be done with COVID, Hoffman said things are going as well as can be expected thus far.
“We feel that the vaccination process in Humboldt County is going very well,” he noted at Tuesday’s meeting. “We are ahead of our counterparts in the rest of the state and certainly, from what I’m hearing in the news reports, the rest of the country.”
The county’s Public Health Branch began offering its own vaccination clinics on Wednesday — again, serving local people who fall into Phase 1A. The clinics will operate three days a week with a goal of vaccinating as many as 750 people per week in the coming weeks. Phase 1A is expected to last through mid- to late-January, at which point vaccines will start being offered to people age 75 and older along with front-line essential workers in education, childcare, emergency services or food and agriculture, though Hoffman said the details for Phase 1B have yet to be finalized.
The county is receiving between 1,000 and 2,000 doses per week at this point, and Hoffman said, “At some point we will need to be getting like five to six thousand doses of vaccine each week.” County staff is prepared to distribute that much, and Public Health is coordinating a mass vaccination clinic that will increase capacity to administer those shots.
Public Health Director Michelle Stephens explained that the vaccines aren’t given to anyone under age 16. That leaves somewhere around 110,000 Humboldt County residents eligible for the vaccine, according to the latest census data.
Several of the county supervisors pressured Hoffman for more details Tuesday, asking him for simple and concrete specifics.
“It would be nice to have a handout for what the plan is,” Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone said, noting that he’s been getting a lot of questions from constituents.
First District Supervisor Rex Bohn agreed. “Is there a plan we can show people?” he asked.
But Hoffman said things can’t really be made any simpler right now.
“What I said today is the plan,” he told the board. “We’re building the ship as we sail it, so it’s hard to give you specifics on something we don’t know about. We don’t know how much vaccine we’ll get each week.”
Certain unknowns, like the virus itself, we’ll just have to live with.