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California, Nation's Most Populous State, Struggles With Vaccine Rollout


Californians got some welcome news on Monday. Governor Gavin Newsom lifted regional stay-at-home orders. He cited a drop in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. But as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports, that good news is tempered by ongoing problems with the vaccine rollout.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The lifting of the stay-at-home order is welcome relief to some struggling businesses, including restaurants that in some places can now resume outdoor dining. But county and local officials can still maintain closures and other restrictions, as several are set to do. And while the worst of the winter surge may be over, California is near the bottom in state-per-capita coronavirus vaccination. Critics say the problems stem from vaccine shortages and the fact that the vaccine goes through county health departments, many of which are overwhelmed.

DAVID LUBARSKY: No, it doesn't make any sense at all. We really need statewide direction. It can't be county by county.

WESTERVELT: Dr. David Lubarsky is CEO of UC Davis Health and a member of the board of trustees for the California Medical Association. He says the current system has resulted in ongoing frustration and confusion. Dr. Lubarsky says the state should pivot to an age and location-focused plan to get more shots into the arms of those most at risk of dying from COVID-19, where the virus is surging.

LUBARSKY: When you have a raging forest fire, you got to bring the fire hoses to where the fire is raging. You don't sprinkle water all over the entire state.

WESTERVELT: On Monday, State Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly told NPR California will start to move toward what he called a more unified statewide control of vaccine distribution.

MARK GHALY: We have 58 counties - some very big, some very small - and they do things differently. Helping bring some consistency, both to what people's expectation can be and what the vaccinators should expect in terms of accountability and measurement and data, will help us do things much better, if you will.

WESTERVELT: But critics argue the state's rough rollout so far is yet another example of the state overpromising and publicly touting programs and fixes that are more aspirational than real. Nearly a month ago, Governor Gavin Newsom said the state would move to get dentists, pharmacists, nursing students and the Cal National Guard into the vaccine effort at scale. It is yet to happen.

SUSAN BONILLA: No one knows what their county is doing.

WESTERVELT: That's Susan Bonilla, CEO of the California Pharmacists Association.

BONILLA: I have two staff people that have been calling each county, trying to figure out what they're doing. And really, there is no consistency across counties. And as you know, some people live in one county and work in another. And so what it's creating is this sense of confusion.

WESTERVELT: Then there are the state's 30,000 nursing students. Some have started to help vaccinate people in Southern California, but most are still waiting for their phones to ring, says Sharon Goldfarb, president of the California Organization of Associate Degree Nursing.

SHARON GOLDFARB: When you look at the need we have and the devastation of COVID, this should have been all hands on deck.

WESTERVELT: The nursing students have been cleared to help, Goldfarb notes. But she, too, says she's having trouble getting clear answers on deployment from counties and from the State Department of Public Health.

GOLDFARB: Calls either go unanswered. Or, you know, if you're really pushing, the answers you get are, well, we're aware of it, and we're working on it. And I think for something of this magnitude, we need more than, we're just working on it. We really need to know what is being done, who is doing it, what the timeline is.

WESTERVELT: But as one state official put it to me, it's not about the number of vaccinators now. The problem now, he said - we need more vaccine, full stop. A handful of mass vaccination sites have opened, and more are scheduled to soon. But Susan Bonilla with the Pharmacists Association points out that many elderly don't drive, and some essential workers may not be able to get off work to go wait in a long stadium vaccine line. She'd like to see the state urgently activate this brick-and-mortar system of thousands of neighborhood and supermarket pharmacies.

BONILLA: If this network could simply be activated, we believe that the possibility of achieving equity in the distribution of the vaccine would be greatly increased.

WESTERVELT: For his part, the governor says the state's vaccine strategy now is to do a better job of pushing out the shots they have and press the federal government for more supply. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berkeley, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF FATB AND DRYHOPE'S "UNRAVEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.