COVID vaccine: Slow rollout, hesitancy, and where LA might be 6 months later

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin and Bennet Purser

LA County continues to be the nation’s hotspot for COVID-19 cases. The county has been averaging around 16,000 new cases every day since the new year.

“We are at a pace right now to deliver vaccines in Los Angeles in over five years instead of over half a year at this pace,” Mayor Eric Garcetti told Face the Nation on Sunday. He also said that every six seconds, someone in LA County is infected with the virus. 

Hospitals are treating people in gift shops and administrative offices. Local funeral homes can’t handle the demand and are turning away families.

Around 436,000 people have been vaccinated in California, a state with some 40 million residents. 

Mayor Garcetti blames the federal government for the slow rollout, saying the city of LA and the state need more money.

But there are also reports that many frontline health care workers are turning down the vaccines. 

KCRW talks about all this with Dr. Oliver T. Brooks, who’s part of the team that drafted the guidelines for the rollout. He’s also chief medical officer of Watts Healthcare Corporation. 

KCRW: Operation Warp Speed's national goal was to deliver 300 million vaccine doses by January 2021. But the CDC is reporting that only about 4 million people have been vaccinated. Why so few?

Dr. Oliver T. Brooks: “First of all, the federal government helped with Operation Warp Speed to get the vaccine developed and through the FDA for emergency use authorization. And then helped some with the shipping and distribution. 

… But there is no coordinated national strategy to getting people vaccinated. … So the states have put plans together. 

But I think really, really importantly, at least for California/LA County, we did not expect to have the vaccine rollout during a surge of patients and those with COVID-19 that we've never seen in the history of this country. 

… The local health department is at capacity. They're still having to contact trace, test managed labs. So they're doing as much as they can. 

So I believe that the real issue is that there's just a lot to be done. And not the total manpower to do it.” 

Is the problem the distribution and not the supply? Or is it both? 

“It's been both. We were promised 2 million doses by the end of December, this state. And we have not received that. We were expecting another 2 million by the end of January. And I don't know if we're going to reach that. So yeah, there has been less vaccine. 

And then also in the actual allocation. … It goes to the county, and then the county has to distribute it. The county is working very hard right now. … I hear from them daily. But it's just a Herculean task. Like we have to sign up, you have to be validated to be able to give the vaccine. Then you have to determine that the people who are receiving it are in fact eligible to get it. Then you have to document what you're doing. So it just takes a lot.

There's also some relative degree of vaccine hesitancy, and that's also part of the challenge.”

The LA Times reported that many frontline health care workers — at least 20 to 40% in LA County, and more in other counties — are refusing to take the vaccine. Does that surprise you? 

“Those that are health care workers generally reflect the population at large. So I believe around 15 to 20% or let's say 30% are Latinx, maybe 10% are Black/African American, and then others. So the same way there is a reflection of vaccine hesitancy, which we've all heard in the polls with different populations, it's just being mirrored with health care providers. So a lot of the concerns that the public has, the health care providers do. 

I will say, though … that is diminishing. As people are getting vaccinated, other people are starting to get vaccinated. So those that are the early adopters, if you hear a health care provider say, ‘I’m first in line, let me go first,’ that is influencing those that are saying, ‘I want to wait a month or two months, I'm seeing them get it, you know, wait a week or wait five days.’ There are more that are now getting vaccinated.” 

What about giving the first dose now to as many people as possible? Don’t hold back the second dose for the people who are getting the first dose. In other words, spread it out to more people. 

“So in other words, give the second dose that you were going to give to the person who got the first dose — to someone else as their first. I am not in favor of that. I think that to get fully immunized, you need two doses. 

… You can have more people vaccinated with a lower level of coverage, or you can have less people vaccinated with a higher level of coverage. I think that the studies were done and the plans were done with a two dose vaccine, at least for Pfizer and Moderna, which is what we have now. 

… I think that we should go on and give that second dose to those who got the first dose — to know that it was managed appropriately. And then as there's more vaccines, I believe there would be less of an issue with that.”

How much are you covered with the first dose? 

“It’s different per vaccine. I don't have the data in front of me. But you're fairly well covered, somewhere in the 80% or so. … I believe that it was with Moderna, you have a higher coverage with the first dose. 

But right now, I still believe that we should do it the way it was planned. If you got the first dose, go on and get your second dose.

… We're in a bad place right now. We have 460,000 or so that are vaccinated in this state, less than 1%. But let's get them fully vaccinated. And then as other vaccines come online, as the supply increases, we can catch these other individuals.”

Where do you think we’ll be six months from now? Will we have enough people vaccinated in six months? 

“There are a couple of factors. One, which we've discussed, is vaccine hesitancy. … But looking at things that we truly can control, which is the supply, the allocation, distribution, and the vaccination, I think it’s not going to take that long. 

I really do believe that as this gets ramped up, more doses will come into LA County. 

… And I think once people see that people are getting vaccinated, they're going to want it too. People want what they don't have. 

… We will have more vaccines. I'd say in six months, we will have a fair amount. I can't say what the percentage is, but more than what he [Mayor Gercetti] was predicting.”

More: Greater LA: COVID vaccine: Who gets the shots and when, then what happens afterward? (Dec. 15, 2020)