California opens scarce COVID-19 vaccines to those 65 and older

Staff and wire reports

California is immediately allowing residents 65 and older to get scarce coronavirus vaccines. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom's announcement Wednesday puts seniors in line before emergency workers, teachers, childcare providers and food and agriculture workers even as counties complain they already don’t have enough doses to go around. 

“There is no higher priority than efficiently and equitably distributing these vaccines as quickly as possible to those who face the gravest consequences,” Newsom said in a statement. “To those not yet eligible for vaccines, your turn is coming. We are doing everything we can to bring more vaccine into the state.”

While health care workers and those in nursing homes and other congregate living facilities can still be vaccinated, state officials are expanding to those 65 and up because they are at the greatest risk of being hospitalized and dying. 

California has seen virus cases and hospitalizations explode since Thanksgiving, though in recent days the numbers have flattened. 

“With our hospitals crowded and ICUs full, we need to focus on vaccinating Californians who are at highest risk of becoming hospitalized to alleviate stress on our health care facilities,” said Dr. Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health and the state's Public Health Officer. “Prioritizing individuals age 65 and older will reduce hospitalizations and save lives.”

Trying to check the virus, California is moving more quickly to distribute vaccines. But quickly ramping up vaccinations has further led to confusion and varying county approaches. 

Orange County has already said it would swiftly move to vaccinate people 65 and up. 

Several other states are already allowing seniors to get in line for the vaccine, including Floridians who are 65 and older and residents age 75 and up in New York, North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi.  

More:Iowa won't immediately offer COVID-19 shots to all seniors

'It's not fair':California's seniors frustrated by COVID-19 vaccine roll-out

Others plan to wait. Iowa does not plan to immediately offer vaccinations to all people older than 65, the state's Department of Public Health said. 

California currently aims to administer nearly 1.5 million vaccine doses by Friday, still a small portion of what’s needed for herd immunity in the state of nearly 40 million people.

Several counties announced they would open mass vaccination sites, including at Dodger Stadium, Disneyland and Cal Expo, an outdoor venue in Sacramento.

Stay-at-home order lifted for Sacramento

California has lifted a stay-at-home order for 13 northern counties with improving hospital conditions, but most of the state’s population remains under tight restrictions in the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

The state on Tuesday lifted the order in the Sacramento region — a rare turn of good news as the state pushes through what Gov. Gavin Newsom called its "most intense surge” of the coronavirus.

The order imposed Dec. 10 banned gatherings outside a household and restricted many businesses. With virus cases and hospitalizations more stable, the region can resume outdoor dining and worship services, reopen hair and nail salons and other businesses, and increase capacity at retailers. Gatherings up to three households are allowed.

Newsom, a Democrat, made the announcement on social media — reminding people to wear masks and stay home as much as possible. He offered a hopeful promise: “There is a light at the end of this tunnel.”

Three of five state regions — the San Francisco Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California — remain under the stay-at-home order because their hospitals' intensive care capacity is severely limited. 

Newly reported cases over the last seven days in the nation’s most populous state have far outpaced others, such as Texas and Florida — the second- and third-most populated U.S. states. However, for the past seven days, California’s average daily rate of new cases per 100,000 people lags behind Arizona and Rhode Island and ties with Oklahoma.

The state is averaging 42,000 newly reported virus cases a day and recorded 3,500 virus deaths in the last week. On Monday, the pandemic death toll topped 30,000. 

Health officials have warned that hospitalization and death increases are likely to continue as people who contracted the virus during the holidays get sicker. 

Newsom imposed the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order in March. It was lifted in the spring when cases fell but a summertime spike spurred more restrictions.

A huge, late fall surge prompted the Newsom administration to divide the state into five regions in December and impose a stay-at-home order in four when their ICU capacity dropped below 15%. Only rural Northern California remained outside the order. 

The Sacramento region’s ICU capacity sits at 9.4% but it is projected to rise above 15% over the next four weeks, prompting the state to lift the order. The region includes El Dorado County, home to Lake Tahoe, a tourism hot spot that drew large holiday crowds despite restrictions.

Newsom and Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services, have credited the state-at-home order with limiting the outbreak's severity but some experts question how much benefit was derived. 

“What the stay-at-home orders were meant to do is keep families that don’t live together separated. Instead, over the last few months, you’ve had people getting together. You’ve had small social gatherings indoors,” said Dr. Brad Pollock, UC Davis School of Medicine associate dean for public health sciences. “I wouldn’t say the stay-at-home orders have been futile, but they probably haven’t had a huge impact on what’s actually happened with the transmission patterns.”

Supervisor Mike Ziegenmeyer of the Sacramento region's Sutter County acknowledged as much when reacting to lifting the order. 

“It’s exciting, but at the same time, who adheres to it?” he said.

Shon Harris, a city councilman in Yuba City, said he was surprised Newsom lifted the order, calling it “baby steps back to the old normal.” But he encouraged people to “take COVID seriously, take the precautions seriously (and) abide by them.”

“They’ve given us an inch. We don’t want to take a mile and get greedy,” he said.

Contributing: Associated Press, Desert Sun editor Kristin Scharkey and reporter Maria Sestito