The crush of demand starting last week temporarily crashed the Sutter Health website, and residents reported sitting on hold with Kaiser Permanente for three to five hours in an attempt to schedule an appointment. Once someone does pick up, residents reported mixed success — some were able to schedule an appointment, which are now pushed back to February, while others are being turned away due to constraints in vaccine supply.
In a statement on Jan. 15, Kaiser apologized for the sluggish and overloaded call system, noting that the state's new eligibility guidelines pose a significant challenge. There are not nearly enough doses to vaccinate all interested residents age 65 and older, and it's difficult to plan ahead when state allocations to health care providers are only revealed on a weekly basis.
As a result, most people who qualify to receive the vaccine will not be able to schedule an appointment at this time, Kaiser said in the statement.
"We sincerely apologize to our members who have encountered long wait times when calling for a vaccination appointment and understand the frustration this causes. We are grateful for everyone's patience and are taking action to alleviate the situation as we work on more ways to increase access to vaccinations as supply allows," according to the statement.
Up until last week, COVID-19 vaccine eligibility in California narrowly focused on health care providers and those living and working in long-term care facilities, including skilled nursing homes. The next "tier" of residents to qualify for the vaccine was supposed to be workers in education, child care, emergency services, food and agriculture.
But Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Jan. 13 new guidelines in which all residents age 65 and older will now qualify for the vaccine, abruptly extending eligibility to more than 3 million additional Californians.
Santa Clara County officials were quick to announce more modest guidelines for local residents, extending its vaccine supply to people age 75 and older and noting that there won't be enough doses available to accommodate the state's ambitious guidelines. The county's population of those older than 75 is about 130,000.
As of Jan. 15, San Mateo County had not changed its vaccine eligibility and remained focused on vaccinating health care workers.
"While state officials recently gave the OK for counties to begin entering Phase 1B for adults 65 years and older, in San Mateo County, we have not yet moved to that phase," a county spokesperson said. (On Jan. 17, San Mateo County revised its stance and expanded eligibility to include people 65 and up, but does not currently have enough vaccine to actually do so).
Many private health care providers, including Sutter Health and Stanford Health Care, have decided to provide appointments to people age 75 and older. Kaiser opted to follow the state guidelines and immediately reached out to patients who are 65 and older, leading to call volumes and wait times that "remain extremely high."
About one-third of the health care workers and long-term care residents eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine have received it so far, health officials said Jan. 12.
Kaiser has since increased staffing in its call center and now operates it 24 hours a day, and is telling callers up front if there are no more available appointments for that day. The hope is that by this week, Kaiser patients will be able to schedule vaccine appointments solely through its website.
Another cause for concern is whether there will be enough COVID-19 vaccine supply to provide second doses. Residents receiving the vaccine developed by Pfizer must receive two doses of the vaccine 21 days apart, while those receiving the Moderna vaccine must receive two doses 28 days apart.
State and local officials were reassured that there was a federal stockpile of "second dose" vaccinations and told not to sit on reserves that could be otherwise used to vaccinate more people.
But on Jan. 15, it was revealed that the federal government may have secretly depleted that stockpile of vaccines. Santa Clara County officials blamed President Donald Trump's administration for the poor communication, and are unsure what it will mean for the expanded rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
How the providers are doing
The Santa Clara County Health System has administered 42,306 first doses and 7,517 second doses out of 77,775 total doses as of Jan. 19. The county currently has 27,747 appointments scheduled within the next seven days, according to the county's COVID-19 vaccine dashboard.
Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara County has received 12,650 first doses and administered 12,333 doses. It received 6,975 second doses and administered 3,206 second doses as of Jan. 19. It currently has 5,400 patient appointments scheduled.
Stanford Health Care has received 25,700 first doses, administered 20,704 and received 8,775 second doses, having administered 9,864. Stanford has only 200 patients registered for vaccinations in the next seven days. The larger numbers of administered doses above allocations may be due to the county providing a few thousand doses from its stockpile to cover health care workers at facilities that received a small allocation compared to their size, county officials said on Tuesday.
Palo Alto Medical Foundation Palo Alto Medical Foundation/Sutter reported on Wednesday that it had received 14,800 first doses and administered 7,624 of them. It has received 9,500 second doses and distributed zero.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian said Tuesday that the large health care providers are going to be the drivers of vaccinating the population.
"The Big Four serve 85% of the population," he said. Kaiser is responsible for about 30% of patients in the county; Sutter/Palo Alto Medical handles 21%; 17% are cared for by Stanford and its affiliates; and 15% are clients of the county, he said.
"If the county's position is that it can't accept the responsibility to give Kaiser and Sutter patients vaccines, we need to work with them to get vaccines to their patients. It's incumbent to push on them," Simitian said.
THERE'S MORE INSIDE
* Find out how to contact your health care provider for a vaccine.
* Read a firsthand account from a local man who was hospitalized for COVID-19 the same day his uncle died of the disease.
* Learn about the latest updates on COVID-19 in Santa Clara County.