'A sense of relief': Coachella Valley health care workers begin receiving COVID-19 vaccine
Coachella Valley health care workers began receiving the COVID-19 vaccine Thursday as Southern California exhausted its regular supply of intensive care beds, leading many medical centers across the region to tap into their surge capacity.
Front-line health care workers at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs were some of the earliest recipients of the vaccine in Riverside County on Thursday.
Respiratory therapist Sandi Aaronson was the first person at Desert Regional to get the vaccine. She knew it was going to happen, but she didn’t find out when until just after 9 a.m. that morning.
“It was pretty fast. There was nothing to it. It was just a shot, but it was a sense of relief,” Aaronson said.
Aaronson said she was especially grateful because the pandemic has prevented her from visiting her 93-year-old mother-in-law who lives a minute from her in Palm Springs. Although she still needs to wait until at least her second dosage in about 21 days, Aaronson said her vaccine is “a big step in the right direction.”
Riverside County spokesperson Jose Arballo, Jr. tweeted Thursday morning that the vaccines had arrived, and the county was working with hospitals to distribute the doses.
The distribution appeared ahead of schedule. The county's first shipment of 14,625 Pfizer vaccines was due to arrive Friday, Riverside County Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.
The next shipment of 10,000 to 11,000 vials will be in the county's possession between Dec. 21 and Dec. 24, according to Saruwatari.
"A handful of hospitals will receive vaccines directly, but the majority will come to county Department of Public Health and then be distributed," Saruwatari said. "High-risk employees will be covered first."
In the Coachella Valley, Desert Regional Medical Center and Eisenhower Health in Rancho Mirage are each expected to receive 1,140 doses.
Riverside County provided a breakdown of how many doses of the Pfizer vaccine were headed to each facility as of Thursday:
- Corona Regional: 800
- Desert Regional Medical Center: 1,400
- Eisenhower Hospital: 1,400
- Hemet Global Medical Center: 585
- JFK Hospital: 805
- Kaiser Riverside and Moreno Valley: 1,700
- Loma Linda Murrieta: 1,512
- Rancho Springs and Inland Valley: 1,960
- Riverside Community Hospital: 1,000
- RUHS Medical Center: 1,950
- Temecula Valley Hospital: 560
Desert Regional received 975 of its expected allotment on Thursday morning, according to Michael Ditoro, the hospital's chief operating officer. Ditoro said that about 120 of those vaccines were set to be administered to health care workers that same day.
The remaining vaccines should arrive in a matter of days, he said, and there’s a line of health care workers waiting to be vaccinated.
“There are a lot of folks who are eager, raising their hands," Ditoro said. "They want to get it."
Dr. Arun Thunga, an anesthesiologist at the hospital, said Thursday that he had "no hesitation," mostly motivated by his family, including two children, who he wants to keep safe. Even with the vaccine, Thunga said he still plans on taking other precautions like washing his hands and social distancing.
“Just me getting the vaccine isn’t enough,” he said.
All five staffers set to receive the vaccines at Desert Regional on Thursday morning each gave a thumbs up after being vaccinated. Dr. Rick Axelrod said there were “no side effects, no soreness in my arm. Everything is great.”
Across the county, Riverside University Medical Center in Moreno Valley, slotted to receive the largest direct allotment of vaccines at 1,900 doses, also accepted its shipment Thursday morning, according to health officials.
The county public health department received between 3,000 and 4,000 doses, which will be distributed to hospitals given smaller allotments, Arballo said Thursday. The hospitals receiving doses from the county will have 120 hours to administer them once they're removed from county freezers.
"Once we get them out of our freezer, the clock starts to tick," Arballo said. Each vial, which contains five doses, takes about 30 minutes to defrost at room temperature and three to four hours to defrost if refrigerated, he said.
Within the next two weeks, the county will receive more than 25,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. "After the general and acute care hospitals are served, skilled nursing facilities will be next, then first responders — emergency medical technicians and paramedics," Saruwatari said.
She said area pharmacies will be partnering with the county to provide shots. The exact timeline for offering vaccinations to the general public was not detailed.
"We have distribution plans in place and will get the vaccines out as fast as we can," she told the board, adding that hospitals are expected to carry out their vaccination programs within a five-day period.
Eisenhower expects to receive the vaccines at the end of this week, but the exact delivery day is unknown, public information officer Lee Rice said Thursday morning. The majority of those vaccines, she said, will come directly from Pfizer.
The Pfizer vaccine requires two shots, given 21 to 28 days apart. It's been found to be 95% effective in preventing COVID-19.
More than 327,000 doses of the first COVID-19 vaccine have arrived or are in transit across California this week. Hospitals in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Eureka were the first to administer the vaccines on Monday.
Another 24 hospitals in the state were expected to receive vaccines on Tuesday, along with an additional five on Wednesday. San Bernardino County began vaccinating its health care workers on Wednesday after receiving 15,600 initial doses
An additional 393,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected to arrive across the state next week. In total, California has nearly 1.4 million doses already committed for state health care workers this month. Gov. Gavin Newsom's goal is to exceed 2.1 million by the end of the year.
Across the state, 61,435 health care workers have tested positive for the virus; 237 have died as of Wednesday.
ICU capacity drops to 0% in SoCal
Intensive care unit capacity in both Southern California and the Central Valley — regions that together include 23 counties — reached 0% capacity on Thursday.
California is averaging more than 35,000 new reported coronavirus cases a day. Health officials estimate 12% of them — 4,200 — end up in hospitals.
Just because ICU capacity reaches 0% in a region doesn't mean there aren't any beds available, though.
The state adjusts the percentage downward if counties have a higher-than-expected ratio of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU space. And, using their surge plans, hospitals have ways of making room for more patients — they just need the physical space, necessary equipment and staff to do it.
Riverside County, one of the 11 counties that make up the Southern California region, reached 0% capacity earlier this week.
Zero percent capacity refers to the number of licensed staffed beds, said Shane Reichardt with Riverside County's Emergency Management Department.
When hospitals are reaching the point where those beds are full, they implement their surge plans — such as canceling elective surgeries or moving ICU patients no longer in need of those services to other areas of the hospital. They may also repurpose beds in other hospital units into ICU beds where possible, Reichardt said.
COVID-19 cases surge across California
California health authorities reported Thursday a record 379 coronavirus deaths and more than 52,000 new confirmed cases. The staggering new figures mean California has seen more than 1,000 deaths in the last five days and nearly 106,000 confirmed cases in just two days.
California’s pandemic death toll now stands at 21,860. The state has also seen the most cases in the nation with more than 1.7 million confirmed.
The massive rise in infections began in October and is being blamed largely on people ignoring safety measures and socializing with others. More recently, health officials said they’ve seen cases stemming from gatherings during the Thanksgiving holiday and have pleaded with residents to avoid getting together with people from other households over Christmas and New Year’s.
In Los Angeles County, the nation's most populous, authorities reported Wednesday that two people are dying every hour as hospitals struggle to keep up with the surge of coronavirus patients.
Most California residents are under a stay-at-home order because of dwindling ICU capacity where they live. Los Angeles County, home to 10 million people, has 2,500 ICU beds but within a month could easily need far more, said Dr. Christina Ghaly, the county’s health services director.
“Hospitals are under siege and our models show no end in sight,” she said.
Bay Area under state stay-at-home order
On Wednesday, California announced the San Francisco Bay Area would join three of the state’s five regions already under a state-mandated stay-at-home order as ICU available beds dropped below 15%. The regions of greater Sacramento, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California are already under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order, which closes businesses including hair and nail salons and movie theaters and severely limits retail operations.
The Northern California region, which includes Humboldt, Lake and Mendocino counties, is not affected for now.
Many of the Bay Area’s counties had already applied the order as a precaution and those that hadn’t must now do so on Thursday.
In Santa Clara County, which had already applied the shutdown rules, reported infections are topping 1,000 per day, compared with 300 in July, said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, the county’s testing director.
“We’re not anywhere out of the woods yet,” he said.
Barbara Ferrer, the public health director for Los Angeles County said the transmission of the virus is rampant.
“We’re experiencing an explosive and very deadly surge,” Ferrer said.
City News Service and the Associated Press contributed to this report.