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California Counties ‘Flying the Plane as We Build It’ in a Plodding Vaccine Rollout

In these first lumbering weeks of the largest vaccination campaign in U.S. history, Dr. Julie Vaishampayan has had a battlefront view of a daunting logistical operation.

Vaishampayan is the health officer in Stanislaus County, an almond-growing mecca in California’s Central Valley that has recorded about 40,000 cases of covid-19 and lost 700 people to the illness. Her charge is to see that potentially lifesaving covid shots make it into the arms of 550,000 residents.

And like her dozens of counterparts across the state, she is improvising as she goes.

From week to week, Vaishampayan has no idea how many new doses of covid vaccines will be delivered until just days before they arrive, complicating advance planning for mass inoculation clinics. The inoculation clinics themselves can be a bureaucratic slog, as county staffers verify the identities and occupations of people coming in for shots to ensure strict compliance with the state’s multitiered hierarchy of eligibility. In these early days, the county also has provided vaccines to some area hospitals so they can inoculate health care workers, but the state system for tracking whether and how those doses are administered has proven clumsy.

With relatively little help from the federal government, each state has built its own vaccination rollout plan. In California, where public health is largely a county-level operation, the same departments managing testing and contact tracing for an out-of-control epidemic are leading the effort. That puts an already beleaguered workforce at the helm of yet another time-consuming undertaking. A lack of resources and limited planning by the federal and state governments have made it that much harder to get operations up and running.

“We are flying the plane as we are building it,” said Jason Hoppin, a spokesperson for Santa Cruz County. ”All of these logistical pieces are just a huge puzzle to work out.”

It’s a massive enterprise. Counties must figure out who falls where in the state’s multitiered system for eligibility, locate vaccination sites, hire vaccinators, notify workforce groups when they are eligible, schedule appointments, verify identities, then track distribution and immunizations administered.

Some of that burden has been eased by a federal program that is contracting with major pharmacies Walgreens and CVS to vaccinate people living in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, as well as a California mechanism that allows some large multicounty health care providers to order vaccines directly. As of this week, some smaller clinics and doctors’ offices also can get vaccine directly from the state.

But much of the job falls on health departments, the only entities required by law to protect the health of every Californian. And they are doing it amid pressures from the state to prevent people from skipping the line and a public eager to know why the rollout isn’t happening faster.

As of Monday, only a third of the nearly 2.5 million doses allocated to California counties and health systems had been administered, according to the most recent state data available. Gov. Gavin Newsom has acknowledged the rollout has “gone too slowly.” Health directors counter it’s the best that could be expected given the short planning timeline, limited vaccine available and other strictures.

“I would not call this rollout slow,” said Kat DeBurgh, executive director of the Health Officers Association of California. “This isn’t the same as a flu vaccine clinic where all you have to do is roll up your sleeve and someone gives you a shot.”

It has been one month since the first vaccines arrived in California, and just over five weeks since the state first outlined priority groups for vaccinations, then passed the ball to counties to devise ways to execute the plan.

Like most states, California opened its rollout with strict rules about the order of distribution. The first phase prioritized nursing home residents and hospital staffs before expanding to other broad categories of health care workers. In the weeks after the vaccines first arrived, state officials made clear that providers could be penalized if they gave vaccinations to people not in those initial priority groups.

Multiple counties said there had been little in the way of line-skipping, but stray reports in the media or complaints sent directly to community officials need to be chased down, wasting precious public health resources. The same goes for reports of vaccine doses being thrown away. One of the vaccines in circulation, once removed from ultra-cold storage, must be used within five days or discarded.

State officials have since loosened their rules, telling counties and providers to do their best to adhere to the tiers, but not to waste doses. On Jan. 7, California officials told counties they could vaccinate anyone in “phase 1a,” expanding beyond the first priority group of nursing homes and hospitals to nearly everyone in a health-related job. Once that wide-ranging category is finished, counties were supposed to move to “phase 1b,” which unfolds with its own set of tiers, starting with people 75 and older, educators, child care workers, providers of emergency services, and food and agricultural workers before expanding to all people 65 and older.

Mariposa and San Francisco both said they would be vaccinating people in the first 1b categories this week. That means residents will start seeing inequities among counties, said DeBurgh, noting that some counties had not yet received enough vaccine doses to cover health care workers while others are nearly finished. Stanislaus County, for example, had received approximately 16,000 first doses as of Jan. 9, but estimates it has between 35,000 and 40,000 health care workers phase 1a.

And the orders are changing yet again, forcing counties to pivot. On Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said the Trump administration would begin releasing more of its vaccine supply, holding onto fewer vials for second doses; and he encouraged states to open up vaccinations to everyone age 65 and older. In response, California officials said Wednesday that once counties are done with phase 1a, people 65 and older are in the next group eligible for vaccines.

Some local health directors expressed dismay at the prospect, saying they welcome the influx of vaccines but need to prioritize people 75 and older who represent the bulk of hospitalizations. They also noted that states already offering broader access have had their own challenges, including flooded health department phone lines, crashed websites and fragile seniors camping out overnight in hopes of securing their place in line.

While sensible in theory, California’s phased approach to the rollout has proved cumbersome when it comes to verifying that people showing up for shots fall under the umbrella groups deemed eligible. In Stanislaus, for example, 6,600 people qualify as in-home support workers. Someone from another county department has to sit with health department staffers to verify their eligibility, since the health department doesn’t have access to official data on who is a qualified member of the group.

Complicating matters, about half the county’s in-home workers are caring for a family member, and many are bringing that person with them to get vaccinated. The county is required to turn those family members away if they don’t meet the eligibility criteria, Vaishampayan said.

A range of other hiccups hampered the rollout. Across the state, uptake of vaccination slowed to a crawl from Christmas to New Year’s. Health workers, particularly those who do not work in hospitals, were on vacation and enjoying a few days off with family after a tough year, several county officials said. Many chose not to get vaccinated during that time.

Others are choosing not to get vaccinated at all. Across the state, health care workers are declining vaccinations in large numbers. The health officer for Riverside County has said 50% of hospital workers there have declined the vaccine.

And in Los Angeles and Sonoma, officials described software challenges that prevented them from quickly enrolling doctors’ offices to receive vaccines and perform injections.

Still, statewide, officials said they were confident that the pace would pick up in the coming days, as more doses arrive, data snags get sorted out and more vaccination sites come on board. Los Angeles County announced this week it would convert Dodger Stadium and a Veterans Affairs site from mass testing sites into mass vaccination clinics. Similar plans are underway at Petco Park in San Diego and the Disneyland Resort in Orange County. Officials hope Dodger Stadium alone can handle up to 12,000 people a day.

The move solves one problem, but potentially exacerbates another: The two Los Angeles sites have been testing 87,000 people a week, according to Dr. Christina Ghaly, Los Angeles County Department of Health Services director. That will put new constraints on testing, even as covid cases in the nation’s most populous county continue to rise and hospitals are beyond capacity.

Aunque controlen el Senado, demócratas necesitarán apoyo republicano en temas clave de salud

Ante la pandemia, los demócratas han abogado por ayudas más generosas, más presión sobre las farmacéuticas para que bajen los precios y más atención al racismo sistémico en la atención de salud.

El 20 de enero, con el control del Senado y la Cámara de Representantes, tendrán el poder de elegir qué propuestas de salud se votarán en el Congreso.

Las victorias del reverendo Raphael Warnock y Jon Ossoff en Georgia dieron a los demócratas dos escaños más en el Senado y la ventaja en un Senado dividido 50-50. Cuando la vicepresidenta electa, Kamala Harris, jure el cargo, su voto servirá como desempate, convirtiéndose así en el voto 51 de los demócratas.

Pero este estrecho margen de votos no eliminará el “filibusteo” (discursos obstruccionistas y dilatorios), lo que significa que los demócratas no tendrán suficientes votos para aprobar muchos de sus planes sin los republicanos.

Eso pondrá en peligro muchas propuestas demócratas de salud, como la de ofrecer a los estadounidenses una opción de seguro público patrocinada por el gobierno, y complicará los esfuerzos para aprobar más ayudas para la pandemia.

Queda por ver si los legisladores serán más proclives al compromiso después que una turba pro-Trump invadiera el Capitolio, el 6 de enero, atacando a la policía y dañando propiedad federal. Hubo cinco muertos.

Los estrechos márgenes de los demócratas en el Senado y en la Cámara de Representantes — donde pueden permitirse perder cuatro votos y aun así aprobar una legislación— también darán más influencia a algunos legisladores que, al no estar de acuerdo con los líderes de sus partidos, tendrán un incentivo para impulsar sus propias agendas a cambio de sus votos.

Habrá poco espacio para los desacuerdos intrapartidarios; y los demócratas dejaron claro, durante las primarias presidenciales, que no están todos de acuerdo sobre cómo lograr sus objetivos de salud pública.

En menos de dos semanas, los demócratas dirigirán los comités encargados de establecer la legislación sobre salud y de examinar a los nominados de Biden en esta área.

El control del Comité de Salud, Educación, Trabajo y Pensiones del Senado pasará a la senadora Patty Murray, demócrata de Washington, quien negoció el acuerdo de 2013 con el entonces presidente de la Cámara de Representantes, Paul Ryan, que puso fin a un largo cierre del gobierno, entre otros acuerdos bipartidistas.

En 2019, Murray y el presidente republicano del comité, el senador Lamar Alexander, de Tennessee, introdujeron un amplio paquete legislativo para reducir los costos de salud. Entre sus propuestas se encontraba una iniciativa para bajar los precios de los medicamentos recetados, mediante la eliminación de las lagunas legales que permiten a los fabricantes de medicamentos de marca bloquear a la competencia.

Durante una entrevista, antes de que los demócratas se aseguren el Senado, Murray dijo que el trabajo de su comité se centrará en los problemas que impiden a los estadounidenses recibir un tratamiento médico equitativo y asequible.

La prioridad, dijo, serán las disparidades raciales, evidenciadas por los desproporcionados índices de mortalidad entre las madres de raza negras, y entre las comunidades de color, que sufren los peores impactos de la pandemia de covid-19.

“No todos los que acuden al médico reciben la misma atención, sienten el mismo nivel de comodidad y muchas veces no se les cree”, dijo Murray.

Murray aseguró que presionará a los senadores para que consideren el impacto en las comunidades de color de cada pieza legislativa. “Esa será la cuestión en cada paso que demos”, añadió.

El miércoles 6, pidió a los republicanos que se incorporen a la lucha contra la pandemia “con políticas que ayuden directamente a los que más sufren y que nos ayuden a salir de esta crisis con más fortaleza y justicia”.

“Con una administración Biden-Harris y una mayoría demócrata en el Senado, los desafíos que enfrentamos no serán menores, pero finalmente tenemos la oportunidad de enfrentarlos y comenzar a tomar medidas”, declaró Murray. “Estoy deseando ponerme manos a la obra”.

El Comité de Finanzas del Senado, que supervisa Medicare, Medicaid y las políticas fiscales relacionadas con la salud, estará encabezado por el senador Ron Wyden, demócrata de Oregon.

Si bien el comité HELP también celebrará una audiencia de confirmación para Xavier Becerra, el candidato de Biden a la Secretaría del Departamento de Salud y Servicios Humanos; es el Comité de Finanzas el que votará para avanzar su confirmación.

En diciembre, los republicanos del Senado amenazaron con retrasar la nominación de Becerra antes de que Biden lo anunciara oficialmente. Los republicanos le reprochan a Becerra su falta de experiencia en el campo de la salud, cuestionan su apoyo a un sistema de salud de un solo pagador y se oponen a su defensa del derecho al aborto.

Como fiscal general de California, Becerra se enfrentó a las demandas presentadas por los funcionarios estatales republicanos contra la Ley de Cuidado de Salud A Bajo Precio (ACA).

Pero se espera que la escasa ventaja de los demócratas en el Senado sea suficiente para rechazar las objeciones de los republicanos a la nominación.

El mes pasado, Wyden alabó el compromiso de Becerra para responder a la pandemia, proteger la cobertura de los cuidados de salud y abordar las disparidades raciales; y dijo que esperaba con interés la audiencia de Becerra “para que pueda ponerse a trabajar y empezar a ayudar a la gente durante esta crisis sin precedentes”.

Además, después de meses de denunciar los fracasos de la administración Trump en el manejo de la pandemia, los demócratas controlarán qué proyectos de ley de ayuda se votarán.

El paquete del mes pasado no incluyó sus demandas de más fondos para los gobiernos estatales y locales, y los republicanos de la Cámara de Representantes bloquearon una iniciativa demócrata que pretendía aumentar los cheques de estímulo de $600 a $2,000.

Los demócratas se han unido en sus demandas de más ayuda, aunque a veces han estado en desacuerdo sobre cómo llevarla a cabo.

En el otoño, con las elecciones cerca y sin ningún acuerdo a la vista, los demócratas moderados, que buscaban ganar su propia elección, presionaron a la presidenta de la Cámara de Representantes, Nancy Pelosi, para que abandonara las negociaciones por un paquete de ayuda de $2,2 billones, que los republicanos calificaron como un fracaso, y aprobara una ayuda más modesta pero desesperadamente necesaria.

“Tanto el liderazgo demócrata, como el republicano, ha metido la pata. Todos son responsables”, declaró a Politico el representante Max Rose, demócrata de Nueva York. “Hagan algo ¡Hagan algo!” Rose perdió la reelección.

Voces más progresistas, como la de la representante Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, demócrata de Nueva York, y el senador Bernie Sanders, independiente de Vermont, han presionado a favor de una ayuda más generosa, con mayores cheques de estímulo.

Más allá de la pandemia, el liderazgo demócrata ha mencionado el precio de los medicamentos como otra área de acción. Pero una de sus propuestas más populares, que autorizaría al gobierno federal a negociar los precios de los medicamentos para quienes están en Medicare, es poco probable que atraiga los votos republicanos que necesitaría.

Cuando los demócratas de la Cámara de Representantes aprobaron una de estas propuestas en 2019, los senadores republicanos aseguraron que ellos nunca la aprobarían.

Los miembros del ala más progresista de los demócratas, por su parte, argumentaron que la propuesta no era suficientemente agresiva.

Sin embargo, después de años de esfuerzos republicanos por socavar ACA, parece probable que la estabilización de la ley pueda cobrar fuerza en un Congreso controlado por los demócratas.

La Cámara de Representantes aprobó, el verano pasado, una legislación destinada a aumentar la cobertura y la asequibilidad, incluyendo la limitación de los costos de los seguros a no más del 8,5% de los ingresos y la ampliación de los subsidios.

Legisladores como Murray y Wyden se han apresurado a señalar que las consecuencias devastadoras de la pandemia, la pérdida de puestos de trabajo y la pérdida de cobertura del seguro, por nombrar sólo dos, han puesto de relieve la necesidad de fortalecer el sistema de salud.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Even With Senate Control, Democrats Will Need Buy-In From GOP on Key Health Priorities

Democrats have argued for more generous pandemic relief, more pressure on drugmakers to lower prices and more attention to systemic racism in health care. On Jan. 20, with control of the Senate and the House of Representatives, they’ll have the power to choose which health care proposals get a vote in Congress.

The victories of the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia last week gave Democrats two more Senate seats and the upper hand in the Senate’s now 50-50 split. After Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes the oath of office, she will serve as the tiebreaker as needed — in effect, Democrats’ 51st vote.

But that vote count is too small to eliminate the filibuster, meaning Democrats will not have enough votes to pass many of their plans without Republicans. That will likely doom many Democratic health care proposals, like offering Americans a government-sponsored public insurance option, and complicate efforts to pass further pandemic relief.

It remains to be seen how willing lawmakers are to compromise with one another in the aftermath of a pro-Trump mob’s breach of the Capitol on Wednesday. Thursday, Democrats demanded the president’s removal for inciting rioters who disrupted the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, assaulted Capitol Police officers and damaged federal property. One demonstrator and a police officer were killed, and three demonstrators died of medical emergencies.

Democrats’ slim margins in the Senate and the House — where they can afford to lose only four votes and still pass legislation — will also give individual lawmakers more leverage, handing those who disagree with party leaders an incentive to push their own priorities in exchange for their votes. There will be little room for intraparty disagreements, and Democrats made it clear during the presidential primaries that they disagree about how to achieve their health care goals.

In less than two weeks, Democrats will lead the committees charged with marking up health care legislation and vetting Biden’s health nominees.

The change will hand control of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who brokered the 2013 agreement with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan that ended a long government shutdown, among other bipartisan deals.

In 2019, Murray and the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, introduced a wide-ranging package to lower health costs for consumers. Among its proposals was an initiative to lower prescription drug prices by eliminating loopholes that allow brand-name drugmakers to block competition.

In an interview before Democrats secured the Senate, Murray said her committee work will be focused on the problems that prevent all Americans from receiving equitable, affordable treatment in health care. Racial disparities, evidenced by disproportionate mortality rates among Black mothers and among communities of color suffering the worst impacts of the pandemic, will be a priority, she said.

“Not everybody goes into the doctor and gets the same advice, feels the same comfort level and is believed,” Murray said.

Murray said she will press for senators to consider how any piece of legislation will affect communities of color. “It will be the question I ask about every step we take,” she said.

On Wednesday, she called out Republicans for standing in the way of fighting the pandemic “with policies that would directly help those struggling the most and would help us build back from this crisis stronger and fairer.”

“With a Biden-Harris Administration and a Senate Democratic majority, the challenges we face won’t get any less tough — but we’ve finally got the opportunity to face them head on and start taking action,” Murray said in a statement. “I can’t wait to start getting things done.”

The Senate Finance Committee, which oversees Medicare, Medicaid and health-related tax policies, will be run by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). While the HELP committee will also hold a confirmation hearing for Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, it is the Finance Committee that will vote to advance his confirmation.

Senate Republicans signaled they would delay considering Becerra’s nomination before Biden officially announced his name last month. Calling him unqualified due to his lack of a health care background, they questioned his support for a single-payer health care system and opposed his efforts to preserve abortion rights. As California’s attorney general, Becerra led efforts to fight lawsuits brought by Republican state officials against the Affordable Care Act.

But Democrats’ slim edge in the Senate is expected to be enough to drown out Republicans’ objections to the nomination. Last month, praising Becerra’s commitment to responding to the pandemic, protecting health care coverage and addressing racial disparities, Wyden said he looked forward to Becerra’s hearing “so he can get on the job and start helping people during this unprecedented crisis.”

Also, after months of decrying the Trump administration’s failures managing the pandemic, Democrats will control which relief bills get a vote.

Last month’s package did not include their demands for more funding for state and local governments, and House Republicans blocked a Democratic effort to increase stimulus checks to $2,000, from $600.

Democrats have been united in their calls for more assistance, though they have disagreed at times about how to push for it.

In the fall, with the election approaching and no deal in sight, moderate Democrats in tough races pushed for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to abandon negotiations for a $2.2 trillion relief package that Republicans called a nonstarter in favor of passing more modest but desperately needed relief.

“Every member of the leadership team, Democrats and Republicans, have messed up. Everyone is accountable,” Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.) told Politico. “Get something done. Get something done!” He lost his bid for reelection.

More progressive voices like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have been a force for more generous aid, particularly larger stimulus checks.

Beyond the pandemic, top Democrats have mentioned drug pricing as another area ripe for action. But one of their most popular proposals, which would authorize the federal government to negotiate drug prices for those on Medicare, is unlikely to attract the Republican votes it would need. When House Democrats passed one such proposal in 2019, Senate Republicans vowed it would never pass.

Members of Democrats’ more progressive wing, for their part, argued the proposal may not go far enough.

After years of Republican efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, though, it looks likely that efforts to stabilize the law could gain more traction under a Democratic-controlled Congress. The House passed legislation last summer aimed at increasing coverage and affordability, including by capping insurance costs at no more than 8.5% of income and expanding subsidies.

Lawmakers like Murray and Wyden have been quick to point out that the pandemic’s devastating consequences — lost jobs and lost insurance coverage, to name just a couple — have only underscored the need to strengthen the health care system.