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Why Stanislaus County’s vaccine rollout is a 'very fluid situation to say the least'

COVID-19 vaccines are making it into people's arms in Stanislaus County, but saying exactly how many in the county have been vaccinated is a bit nuanced.

STANISLAUS COUNTY, Calif. — Make no doubt, COVID-19 vaccines are in Stanislaus County and getting into people’s arms. The problem, according to some leaders, is that communication channels have made it challenging to actually know how much vaccine they’re getting, when vaccinations will ramp up, and how many people in the county have been vaccinated.

“It’s a very fluid situation to say the least between the communications between the county level, the state level, and the federal level. It’s been challenging to say the least,” said Vito Chiesa, Stanislaus County Supervisor.

Vaccinations for the first phase of California's rollout are underway in Modesto at the county’s Scenic Drive clinic. It's been open since Jan. 5. The clinic is restricted to only the people in the current phase, generally meaning healthcare workers, long-term care residents, and people at high risk of exposure in healthcare settings. People in this phase can ask their employer about vaccination or visit the clinic on a first come first serve basis.

It’s a busy site that Chiesa said needs about 4,000 vaccines to run through the week. That’s why he was a little taken aback by this week’s vaccine delivery of 800.

While the clinic is still expected to get through the week’s vaccinations regardless of the week’s allotment, the number reflects a key issue that the county has been trying to surmount.

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In a Tuesday Board of Supervisors meeting, county officials described the flow of vaccine as “unpredictable”

“It’s unpredictable because direct shipping, typically what happens is there’s some overshipping to some of these multi-county entities which diminishes the supply for us,” assistant director of Emergency Services Richard Murdock told the Board on Tuesday. Multi-county entities refers to places like Kaiser and Sutter Health and or systems like state prisons and state hospitals.

Adding to that, Stanislaus County has been given 25,225 doses of vaccine, but it’s not entirely clear how much of that has actually made it to someone’s arm. Officials said 16,215 doses were given to healthcare partners for Phase 1A, and they don’t have information available on the number of doses actually administered by Kaiser and Sutter Health in the county. Also unknown is the number of vaccinations given by Walgreens and CVS to long-term care facilities or other entities that aren’t the county.

The vaccines that the county can account for is what's in the county’s control. They have 9,010 doses and 1,625 have been given to the public, 4,000 have been reserved for the clinic on Scenic Drive, and 3,375 doses are available for additional distribution.

Officials in Tuesday's board meeting said vaccinations were finishing up for Tier 1 of Phase 1A, ongoing for Tier 2 and just starting on Tier 3. Vaccinations are happening, but information on how many people are vaccinated is nuanced. 

Chiesa is expecting those vaccine numbers to scale up, but he said the information exchange is the biggest obstacle to them having a more ideal footing heading forward. 

Information can make a difference when the county starts investing in infrastructure for mass vaccination. If they know how much they’re getting and when, they can prioritize accordingly. If vaccine distribution is ramping up, they’ll build the infrastructure, and if it isn’t, they won’t spend their time building infrastructure to only deliver a few hundred doses, Chiesa said.

“I don’t want to go from 600 doses to 20,000 doses in one day, because that’s not going to do anyone any good,” he said. “It’s really about information exchange and how we’re going to expand the whole COVID-19 vaccine process.”

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For now, Stanislaus is moving forward with building out facilities for vaccine distribution. Rosalee Rush, spokesperson for Stanislaus State University, said the university was working with the county to serve as a distribution site for the vaccine. 

“We’re expecting more vaccines and we need to build out the infrastructure, because worst case scenario is that we have them (but) we don’t have anyone or any infrastructure to stick people in the arm,” Chiesa said.

Adding to the some frustration in the county are “no-notice” updates. Some updates on vaccination plans are happening in real time, with little time for county officials to actually prepare. On Wednesday, state health officials announced that people 65 and older will be allowed to get the vaccine. 

Chiesa and his team learned that news right before their board meeting on Tuesday. Regardless, they’re trying to make the best of what he calls a “very fluid situation.”

“It’s not the best way (to learn of updates) but again I think we’re building the airplane as we’re heading down the runway,” he said.

Moving forward the big concern is that a quick expansion would cause problems if the points of distribution were not in place. Preparation and knowing when they’ll be needed is key.

“It’s important for the public to recognize that there’s been so much anticipation on vaccines and the rollout is always imperfect. But again things are so fluid, I want them to have confidence that the vaccines are being distributed properly to hospitals, to healthcare workers, to first responders and that we will get to just the public members that don’t fit in any of those categories.”

He hopes the other members of the public can start seeing their vaccinations in the next couple of weeks.

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