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Sonoma County seniors aged 65-74 elevated in line for vaccines

Sonom County will follow Gov. Newsom’s recommendation to open up doses, as soon as the beginning of February.|

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Sonoma County residents age 65 to 74 will move up the line for the coronavirus vaccine, following guidance from California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday.

The move puts people in that age range in the same tier as residents 75 and older, making immunization more readily available to a large and eager class of residents at a time when Sonoma County’s cases and deaths are rising.

Health officer Dr. Sundari Mase and other public officials emphasized that getting to Phase 1B of the state’s prioritization system will depend on how many doses the county receives, and how many people in higher tiers, exclusively workers in the medical field, elect to be vaccinated.

“We’re not quite there at Phase 1B, Tier 1 yet. So just hold tight,” Mase said. “We will get into ways for people to get their vaccination, whether it be through their primary care provider, whether it be through one of our multi-specialty hospitals, whether it be through the public health route. We should be there hopefully in the next two to three weeks.”

Mase didn’t have a precise of number of 65- to 74-year-olds who may soon become eligible in Sonoma County, but she believes it’s in the range of 40,000 people.

Clearly, the scale of that group and the migration of the vaccination program away from hospitals and clinics will be a daunting challenge here and elsewhere in California. Health leaders are pleading for patience.

“The reality is that we’re being inundated by calls and emails from people seeking the vaccine,” said Dr. Joshua Weil, a specialist in emergency medicine for Kaiser Permanente. “I think that’s great, because it means that people are wanting the vaccine, which is the way out of this pandemic. But we’re going to have to be patient. Because even if we can execute on 5,000-7000 vaccines a day, you can do the math, that’s going to take five months to get 500,000 people vaccinated.”

On Tuesday, the most recent day for which data was available, 738 people were vaccinated in Sonoma County, a number that includes doses that went to local hospitals but excludes those administered in nursing homes through a federal and state partnership with the CVS and Walgreens pharmacy chains. Also as of Tuesday, a total of 13,245 doses had been distributed in the county, including some second doses to hospital personnel.

Wednesday’s change in status was welcomed by people aged 65 to 74, especially those with underlying conditions that put them at higher risk of dire outcomes should they acquire the novel coronavirus.

“Thank god,” said Martin Webb, 71, a Sebastopol and former principal at Analy High School. “I’m over 70, and I’ve had five heart bypasses. We were never in this line.”

Newsom’s announcement Wednesday morning now 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,” Gov. Gavin 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.”

A growing list of states that includes Florida, New York and Oregon either already are offering vaccines to the 65-74 age group or have announced plans to do so.

In California, virus cases and hospitalizations have exploded since Thanksgiving, though in recent days the numbers have steadied somewhat.

“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.”

The moves follows recommendations Tuesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it comes after members of a state advisory panel on Tuesday worried that adding seniors will inevitably delay vaccines for others.

Newsom set a goal last week of delivering 1 million doses by Friday, beyond the roughly 480,000 that had been administered by last week.

The governor also announced a new system to let people know if they are eligible to receive a vaccine, to start next week. If residents are not yet eligible, the system will allow them to register for a text or email notification when they are.

It wasn’t immediately clear how that system would operate, especially here in Sonoma County. Mase and others are encouraging members of the public, including seniors, to consult their primary care physicians regarding the timing of their eligibility.

Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer for Providence St. Joseph Health in Sonoma County, said he hopes the two local hospitals owned by that company here, Santa Rosa Memorial and Petaluma Valley, will begin vaccinating patients by the end of January, and is contacting them this week. “Making sure we’re not jumping the line, and we’re getting folks that are higher risk,” Krilich said.

Even in the midst of a COVID-19 surge and a vaccination rollout that has left many frustrated, Mase and her colleagues are pointing to positive signs.

Wednesday was the first day of operation for a drive-thru clinic at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa. By Friday, the county hopes to have capacity at Grace Pavilion for more than 1,200 doses per day, according to Ken Tasseff, Sonoma County’s vaccination mission manager. He said health officials are also working on securing sites at the Santa Rosa Junior College campus in Petaluma, at Huerta Gymnasium in Windsor and at undisclosed sites in West County and Sonoma Valley.

Those sites would be dedicated to vaccinating health care workers until the county reached Phase 1B, but will be there for segments of the public when they become eligible.

Mase also said she learned Wednesday that the state has approved EMTs to deliver the vaccine, just at it recently approved dentists. Locally, Sonoma County is hoping to update its vaccine website soon to reflect number of doses received by the county, in addition to number administered in arms.

This article includes reporting from Staff Writer Phil Barber and the Associated Press. You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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