As California awaits its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines, totaling 327,000 doses, the state is attempting to quash concerns that the wealthy and well connected will somehow be able to obtain vaccines ahead of frontline health care workers and other prioritized groups during the arduous vaccine distribution process.
"It's an enormously complicated undertaking and in fact, it's been described as one of the greatest logistical challenges in history," said Dr. Eric Toner, who has studied pandemic preparedness for 20 years and currently serves as a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "So things will go wrong."
While the rich and famous have benefited from better access to COVID-19 testing, Toner believes skipping ahead to the front of the vaccine line will be far more difficult.
“With testing, you can go out and buy a test kit, even go to an urgent care center or laboratory,” said Toner, who is also a former emergency room physician of 23 years. "But...the vaccine is owned by the government and it’s tightly controlled. So, I think it’ll be harder to do that. Nothing’s impossible, but I think it would be harder.”
By next week, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer is expected to send 327,000 doses of its vaccine to pre-selected distribution sites across California.
Gov. Newsom Vows Rich and Famous Won't be Given Preferential Treatment
Governor Gavin Newsom said state officials would be aggressive in ensuring those with money, influence, or connections won’t be given preferential treatment as vaccines are doled out across California.
“Those that think they can get ahead of the line and those that think because they have resources or they have relationships that will allow them to do it, we will be monitoring that very, very closely,” Newsom said at a virtual press conference earlier this month. “We will prioritize, and we will expect that everyone in the healthcare delivery system is held to the same ethical standard, prioritizing those that are truly in need.”
While nursing homes and the state’s medical force have been placed at the front of the line for vaccines, it’s still a very long line. There are 2.4 million healthcare workers and thousands of assisted living facilities in California, so there is growing concern about whether the most vulnerable populations will, in fact, be the first to receive the vaccine, as health officials intend.
“That is millions and millions of people when you only have a few hundred thousand doses of vaccine,” Newsom said.
Nationwide, getting the vaccine to 300 million Americans will be an unprecedented logistical challenge, said Toner, who worries about vaccine access inside the country’s marginalized communities.
“Mostly, I’m worried about our ability to get to those places that where we really think it is most important,” he said. “That is communities that have historically been marginalized or disenfranchised that distrust both government and people in the medical field.”
All 58 Counties in California Required to Submit Vaccine Distribution Plans
Each of California’s 58 counties were required to submit their own vaccine distribution plan to the state earlier this month, answering a standard set of questions, including how county health officials would reach those marginalized communities, and how they would keep the vaccine secure.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit obtained and reviewed plans from counties across the Bay Area and found most counties, such as Santa Clara, said they will perform random audits to ensure storage and inventory requirements are being followed at points of distribution for the vaccine.
“[The Public Health Department] will complete random audits by calling or emailing the provider to check in on their procedures, and conduct site visits, as necessary,” Santa Clara County health officials wrote in their vaccine plan. “If the provider continues to not meet requirements, they may not receive allocations until corrective action is in place.”
The Investigative Unit also reached out to several large hospital chains in the region to inquire about their plans to secure the vaccine once they get it, but all declined to discuss specific details. Most hospitals have increased their general security since the onset of the pandemic to enforce admittance restrictions.
Many hospitals and health care facilities will be responsible for vaccinating their own staff, and frontline health care workers will be among the first to receive a dose.
Healthcare Workers React to Prospect of Receiving Vaccine
"News of the vaccine, which has really been a remarkable scientific achievement, has really offered a big ray of hope and optimism for folks on the front lines," said Dr. Armond Esmaili, medical director of the Respiratory Isolation Unit at the UCSF Parnassus Heights campus, which was created in the midst of the pandemic to care for COVID-19 patients.
"I think [the vaccine] gives us confidence that we can go into work feeling safe. In addition, we'll return to our lives a little bit safer as well with our family and loved ones."
Over the past nine months, Esmaili has treated dozens of patients suffering from COVID-19 and said he has medical colleagues across the country who have become infected as well.
“It strikes a chord when you see someone who’s pouring 80, 90 hours into the week, their heart and soul,” Esmaili said. “Not seeing loved ones, not seeing family – to see them get ill, it’s really hard.”
Esmaili said getting vaccinated isn’t just about his safety. It will also limit the exposure of the most vulnerable who continue to be admitted to the hospital, giving him peace of mind while he and his colleagues continue to treat the sick and dying.
“Many of us feel like this is what we were made for,” Esmaili said. “This is what we’ve trained our whole careers to do and this is where we rise to the occasion to meet the needs of our patients.”