Ebb and flow of COVID vaccines uncertain

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – The timing and amounts of initial COVID-19 vaccine shipments to Humboldt County have fulfilled expectations but the county’s health officer has said the scale of future availability is uncertain.

​In an update at the January 5 Board of Supervisors meeting, Dr. Ian Hoffman, the county’s health officer, described vaccines as “the tool that we really feel is going to end this pandemic.”

The county’s four major hospitals, United Indian Health Services, the Open Door Clinic network and the county’s Public Health Branch are giving doses of vaccine to the first eligible group, health care and skilled nursing care workers. That group is estimated to be about 10,000 people.

Hoffman said vaccination partnerships with commercial pharmacies are beginning and County Public Health is launching a three-day-a-week vaccination clinic this week. Its goal is to vaccinate up to 750 people a week.

​The county has received 1,000 to 2,000 vaccine doses a week so far but Hoffman said that when vaccination expands to essential workers and elderly residents, 5,000 to 6,000 doses per week will be needed.

​Asked about what the plan is for the next step, he said near future vaccine availability is uncertain.

​“We’re building this ship as we sail it so it’s hard to give you specifics on something we don’t know about,” said Hoffman. “We don’t know how much vaccine  we’re getting each week so we have to plan according to what we have – what we know we have and what we think we will get.”

​When larger shipments of vaccine are lined up, “We will definitely start to vaccinate larger numbers of people in a way that is going to require very big clinics,” he continued.

​The county got its first shipments of a vaccine made by the Pfizer corporation and the BioNtech biotechnology company in mid-December and Hoffman said about 5,500 vaccine doses have arrived to date.

​About 3,600 of the doses have been administered, he continued. The Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine requires two doses given three weeks apart and Hoffman said shipments of the second doses arrived the week of the meeting.

​But he added that no additional first doses had been received last week. “There’s kind of an ebb and flow of the vaccine,” he said. “We expected this to happen – that we might get quantities of the vaccine early on but not as much as we start to see second doses.”

​He said the vaccine phase for elderly residents and essential workers will probably begin at the end of this month but its capacity is unknown.

​“We’ll see what that looks like,” he continued. “It depends, again, on the number of vaccines that we’re given.”

​The county has also gotten shipments of a second vaccine, made by the Moderna biotech company, which is being administered to health care workers in outpatient facilities due to its more conventional refrigeration requirements.

Sheriff Billy Honsal said he’s been informed that general public availability of vaccines is still six to nine months away, which he said is “kind of shocking to me.”

​The meeting was the first for just-seated Second District Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, who asked Hoffman about vaccinating essential workers like teachers and the procedure for resuming classroom instruction at schools.

​The county was recently downgraded to a lower state risk tier despite rising case numbers. Going back into the state’s highest tier is likely and will affect school activities.

​“I want to make sure that everyone understands where things are headed,” said Hoffman. “The more teachers that are vaccinated, the better we’ll feel about getting those teachers back into the classrooms.”

​At this point, there is no vaccine available for those under the age of 16.

​Bushnell also asked whether a vaccine sign-up effort can be done countywide. Hoffman said it’s unlikely at this point because the county doesn’t know what the vaccine availability will be for the next phase.

​Vaccinations are continuing as new and more contagious strains of the virus emerge in multiple countries, including the U.S.

A strain that is circulating widely in the U.K. is causing infections in areas of California.

Another variant originally detected in South Africa has more mutations in the coronavirus spike protein and greater potential for evading immunity.

The new strains are just beginning to be studied and during a Jan. 7 media availability interview, Hoffman was asked how much confidence people should have in the capability of vaccines.

“I’m still confident and we are moving forward with this vaccine process and our plan is to continue to vaccinate all of Humboldt County over the course of this year,” he said.

He reported that information on the county’s vaccine quantities and administration will probably be added to the COVID-19 website dashboard this week.

Generally updating the situation, Hoffman said the “vast majority” of the county’s COVID cases at this point are from contacts with household members and friends.

Hoffman said that “I feel, as each day goes on, more confident” that the county will be moved back into the state’s purple or highest risk tier this week.

​Last week saw 271 new cases, bringing the county’s total to 2,031. With seven new hospitalizations, the county’s total is at 73. An additional death brought that total to 23.


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