Santa Clara County officials pledge ‘smoother’ vaccine rollout for boosters

Santa Clara County health officials promised residents a “smoother” rollout of COVID-19 booster vaccines compared to the initial round of vaccinations, when short supplies and a patchwork sign-up system left many confused and frustrated for months.

Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody told supervisors during a board meeting Tuesday that providing third vaccine doses would be “somewhat less complex” given the wide availability of vaccines, a stark contrast to the unpredictable supply chain earlier this year that twice forced the county to abruptly cancel thousands of appointments for Kaiser patients.

“I would expect that it would be smoother because the reason for the changing priorities had to do with vaccine availability, and that’s not a problem,” added County Executive Jeff Smith. “We’re geared up to handle high volume so we won’t be turning anyone away.”

In the coming weeks — and perhaps as soon as Sept. 20, per President Joe Biden’s pandemic plan — the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are expected to approve third doses for those who received both shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. There is no federal discussion of boosters for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson regimen, health officials said.

Last month, the agencies approved third doses for people who are immunocompromised, such as transplant recipients and cancer patients. Santa Clara County began providing shots to qualifying residents the same day.

When broader approval arrives, the county similarly hopes to have “doses in arms within 24 hours,” said Dr. Ahmad Kamal, director of health care preparedness. Various sites — including the longtime mass vaccination site at the county fairgrounds in San Jose and a community center in Mountain View — will be used to provide shots, along with teams at skilled nursing facilities and mobile pop-up clinics.

Through the public Valley Medical system, the county itself expects to provide about 50% of the third doses, which could number as high as about 1 million in the first three months after approval. About 83% of the county’s population over 12 was fully vaccinated as of Tuesday.

But the speed of the rollout largely depends on staffing levels: In both the public and private provider system, exhaustion from the 18-month pandemic has led to high staff turnover, said Jo Coffaro, regional vice president for the Hospital Council of Northern and Central California, though she did not share specific numbers.

“We have been both locally, statewide and nationally experiencing disproportionate numbers of retirement and staffing shortages across all of our operations, which will be a major challenge,” Coffaro said, later adding that “staffing is the Achilles heel” to an efficient booster rollout.

Last year, health officials ordered large health care systems to immediately expand coronavirus testing when it became clear that the county’s public system was providing the majority of tests.

Supervisor Joe Simitian called on Cody to use the same method later this fall if private health care systems struggle to offer boosters right away, while Supervisor Cindy Chavez formally requested that local providers attend the supervisors’ next meeting to explain their rollout plans.

“If we don’t have a situation where folks are stepping up — in terms of the other health care organizations — I want to put it in the record that I’ll be encouraging you to issue any directive you need so that every resident in the county that’s authorized has access to the booster,” Simitian said.

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Author: Fiona Kelliher