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San Diego to offer COVID-19 vaccines to police, teachers, farm workers and others starting Saturday

Rya Hege teaches her 4th grade class at T.H.E Leadership Academy on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020 in Vista, CA.
Rya Hege teaches her 4th grade class at T.H.E Leadership Academy on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020 in Vista, CA.
(Jarrod Valliere / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

More than 500,000 San Diegans fall into the soon-to-be eligible groups

This Saturday, San Diego County will begin vaccinating police officers, teachers, farm workers and many others in a bid to broaden immunity against the coronavirus.

All in all, 500,000 San Diegans who fall into the categories of emergency services; childcare and education; and food and agriculture will be eligible for their shots.

Vaccination for some in these groups will be handled through targeted efforts. For instance, K-12 teachers and staff will be immunized through a program led by the San Diego County Office of Education and California Schools Voluntary Employees Benefits Association (VEBA), an organization that offers health care benefits to school employees.

Vaccine doses will be prioritized to school staff in districts that are open or plan to open. Within those districts, schools in zip codes hardest hit by the pandemic will be first in line.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher says the county will set aside 20 percent of its vaccine supply for this program — twice the amount the state plans to earmark for educators.

“Our goal is to as swiftly as possible get those folks vaccinated,” said Fletcher during the county’s Wednesday coronavirus briefing.

While information about the program will be posted on vebavaccinates.com, county officials said that K-12 teachers and staff won’t need to schedule their own appointments, as that’ll be coordinated through their school districts.

Immunizations for the county’s law enforcement officers will be handled with help from Scripps Health, one of the region’s two largest health systems. And San Diego firefighters will go out into the fields to inoculate farm workers.

All other San Diegans who fall into the soon-to-be-eligible groups (e.g. grocery store workers) will be able to make an appointment at one of the region’s vaccine superstations or smaller sites, with location and signup information available on vaccinationsuperstationsd.com.

But securing an appointment won’t be easy, as the number of eligible San Diegans will dwarf the region’s supply of doses.

“There’s going to be considerable strain on the vaccination system and on the appointment system,” Fletcher said. “As soon as we get vaccines, we make appointments available. And likely as soon as we make them available for the next week or two weeks, they will probably be immediately gone.”

Uncertainty around supply has been one of the few constants during an ever-changing rollout. That’s true despite a promise by President Joe Biden to give states a running estimate of how much vaccine they can expect over the next three weeks.

Apparently, that information isn’t being relayed to the county, which Fletcher says is lucky when it knows how much vaccine is coming three days from now.

But he noted that vaccine manufacturers have said they’ll ramp up production, and that doses delayed by winter storms are now flowing into the county.

There’s another reason to expect supply to increase. On Friday, a panel of researchers will vote on whether to recommend that the Food and Drug Administration authorize Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.

If that happens, the first doses could arrive by Monday, according to Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county’s public health officer. But she said that the county doesn’t know how many doses it would receive. And neither Wooten nor Fletcher addressed precisely how the county will incorporate a third coronavirus vaccine into the region’s rollout.

“There are ongoing conversations about how to best utilize the J&J vaccine in the context of others,” said Fletcher, alluding to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. “But in general, the presence of the J&J vaccine will make things easier rather than harder.”

Unlike vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires a single dose. That could be useful at a time when about 330,000 San Diegans are waiting to get their second vaccine dose. In many cases, those appointments have been delayed due to supply issues.

While the vaccine rollout moves ahead, San Diego’s coronavirus metrics continue to improve. On Wednesday, the county reported 658 new coronavirus infections; that’s 13 days in a row that new cases have been below the 1,000 mark. And the total number of San Diegans hospitalized with COVID-19 has dipped to 602, with 23 new hospitalizations. Twelve additional COVID-19 deaths bring the county’s total to 3,230.

At this rate, the county could resume outdoor high school sports by next week and rise from the state’s most restrictive reopening tier, the purple tier, to the next tier up (red tier) in the next few weeks. That would allow restaurants and gyms to resume limited indoor operations, along with other gradual openings of the region’s economy.

But recent reports have triggered concern that new strains of the coronavirus could undo the region’s hard-fought progress.

A study led by UC San Francisco researchers used genetic analysis to identify the viral variants present in 630 positive coronavirus tests and found that about half of samples collected between Jan. 10 and Jan. 27 had mutations indicative of new “California” variants of the pathogen — a marked increase from 16 percent of samples analyzed in November.

The report has fueled fears that these variants, which appear to be more infectious than other types, will soon cause another wave of illness across the nation.

Asked Wednesday to comment on the report, Dr. Eric McDonald, medical director of the county’s epidemiology department, said that genetic analysis performed in San Diego County by Scripps Research estimates that between 30 percent and 40 percent of samples coming back locally appear to be caused by California variants.

But he also noted that it’s too early to say for certain whether these home-grown versions truly pose a greater threat.

He added that overall numbers have continued to decrease even though the California variant was present during the recent surge in hospitalizations in December and January.

“We don’t have evidence in San Diego that these variants are indeed more contagious or have higher illness and death rates associated with them,” McDonald said.

Kristian Andersen, the Scripps Research molecular biologist whose team has sequenced thousands of coronavirus genomes in San Diego, said his concern remains B.1.1.7, a variant first spotted in the United Kingdom.

“Yes, the California variant has been increasing — and is probably slightly more transmissible than non-California variants — but nowhere near as transmissible as B.1.1.7.,” said Andersen in an email. “We expect B.1.1.7 to become dominant over the next few weeks — probably early-to-mid March.

“It’ll likely knock out the CA variant.”


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