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Beyond Bruin Walk: California cannot squash pandemic without improving logistics of vaccine rollout

(Emily Dembinski/Illustrations director)

By Sabrina Huang and Jake Brophy

Jan. 14, 2021 11:12 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 18 at 7:47 p.m.

The COVID-19 pandemic may come to an end in a matter of months.

But if California can’t get its act together, hopes of a return to normalcy may remain little more than a pipe dream.

California began receiving COVID-19 vaccines in mid-December, and since then, health care providers have distributed more than 900,000 doses. But there are still almost 2 million more that are waiting to be administered, and worrying problems with the state’s distribution have resulted in a system that falls well short of officials’ goals.

Even more disheartening is the fact that the slow rollout threatens to let many of the vaccines expire, a waste that would be crushing to a state that currently has the nation’s second-highest COVID-19 infection rate and more than 31,000 deaths.

To the credit of state officials, they are aware of the sluggishness of the vaccine distribution. In his annual budget proposal, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on state legislators to set aside $372 million to expedite the administration of the lifesaving vaccine – but awareness doesn’t mean much if substantive results aren’t achieved.

And action is desperately needed now, as the state battles a post-holiday surge that has hospitals stretched to their limits.

To be sure, distributing the vaccine to a state as large and populous as California is a monumental challenge. However, it’s in no way an excuse to let logistical problems impede a task of such great urgency. The state’s leaders should have been prepared well before they received more than 2 million vaccine doses, but rehashing the past is futile at this point. Officials now need to work through the worrying problems that led to the slow distribution and do everything they can to prevent it from happening again.

More time means more lives lost.

Legislators can begin by addressing the technological problems that have stunted the effort. Currently, the state relies on an online service called PrepMod to organize clinics and record vaccine administration among patients. All health care facilities that are interested in providing the vaccine are required to register online with the California Department of Public Health.

The process may sound simple on the surface, but it’s anything but.

Accessibility challenges and limited guidance mean delays in vaccine shipments. Long lists of interested health care providers and a slow approval process create waitlists that prevent facilities from administering vaccines.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time the state has run into technical difficulties during the pandemic.

Last summer, an online system CDPH uses to track and monitor diseases across California failed to capture data records for more than a week. Officials attributed the problem to an expired contract with an external organization that transmits data from labs to the state’s database. When all was said and done, officials had to process a backlog of 250,000 to 300,000 data records – an easily avoidable waste of time and manpower.

One month after the debacle, CDPH announced it was working with a software company to develop a separate and more efficient COVID-19 tracking system.

Lessons don’t have to be learned the hard way, but old habits seem to die hard for the Golden State.

And what’s beyond frustrating is the fact that while some must wait weeks, if not months, to get a vaccine, others can game the system entirely. The Los Angeles Times reported Jan. 11 that several sites in LA did not check medical credentials before administering vaccinations. As a result, numerous people who weren’t front-line workers were allowed to not only book an appointment but also receive a vaccination.

A distribution as flawed as this is demoralizing. California can do better.

In more promising news, Newsom announced Wednesday that all Californians ages 65 years and older can now receive the vaccine. The decision seems to have come out of the blue, though. A handful of counties’ health websites didn’t reflect the update at first and seniors seeking vaccinations were confused by the lack of information, according to the LA Times. In LA County, officials said those who are at least 65 years old likely won’t receive a vaccine until at least the end of January. And from the way it’s going, they may have to wait longer. Half a million more health care workers still need to get vaccinated and the county lacks the necessary doses.

Newsom also said the state will release a new notification system next week that lets Californians know when they can receive a vaccine. This comes as a welcome gesture that has the potential to not only educate but also reassure.

But if the state’s tenuous relationship with technology continues, it seems unlikely it’ll have the impact Californians need. Speed is of the essence but so is efficacy.

Public officials must remember that.

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Sabrina Huang | Assistant Opinion editor
Huang is an assistant Opinion editor for the 2020-21 school year. She was previously an Opinion columnist and an occasional PRIME contributor. She is a second-year public affairs student from Orange County, California.
Huang is an assistant Opinion editor for the 2020-21 school year. She was previously an Opinion columnist and an occasional PRIME contributor. She is a second-year public affairs student from Orange County, California.
Jake Brophy | Assistant Opinion editor
Brophy is the 2020-2021 assistant opinion editor. He was previously an opinion columnist for the 2019-2020 school year. He is also a third year political science major.
Brophy is the 2020-2021 assistant opinion editor. He was previously an opinion columnist for the 2019-2020 school year. He is also a third year political science major.
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