Five healthcare workers at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Hollywood were among the first Californians to get the COVID-19 vaccine Monday, ushering in a new phase of a pandemic that has killed more than 21,000 people in the state and shattered the economy.
Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti looked on as the first workers in L.A. County got their shots, the beginning of what will be a long campaign to vaccinate California, starting with frontline healthcare workers.
The vaccine offers a new promise as California faces the darkest moment of the COVID crisis, with cases reaching unprecedented levels and hospitals filling up. The vaccine won’t change those grim circumstances, but it does offer hope.
The state’s initial vaccine allocation — about 327,000 doses — will go mostly to acute-care hospitals to be administered to healthcare workers, although some counties have said they also will send a portion to skilled nursing facilities.
The vaccine isn’t expected to be available to everyone who wants it until at least the spring.
A working group of scientists and experts representing California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington has already reviewed the vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech and endorsed its safety.
The nationwide vaccination campaign also got underway Monday.
“This is Mile 24 of a marathon. People are fatigued. But we also recognize that [the] end is in sight,” said Dr. Chris Dale of Swedish Health Services in Seattle.
San Francisco received 2,000 doses of the vaccine, the city’s chief of public health said Monday.
“We are on the brink of a historic moment for our city: The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine is beginning,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, director of San Francisco’s public health department.
The vaccine was sent to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, which is run by the city.
“It will be a long rollout — and too late for this surge,” Colfax said, noting that more San Franciscans are infected with the coronavirus than at any previous time during the pandemic.
“I think it is very important to step back for a moment and realize how dire our situation has become,” Colfax said.
During the last week, the city has reported more than 200 new cases of the coronavirus a day, and there are no signs the surge is abating, he said.
In San Diego County, three boxes of doses arrived Monday, the county tweeted. Those doses will be used both by the county itself — which operates the San Diego County Psychiatric Hospital — as well as by local hospitals. Five medical centers are expected to receive allotments from the first batch of vaccine, though it was unclear how many doses they would get.
Three other hospitals, including Rady Children’s Hospital, will receive the vaccine directly from Pfizer, but not on Monday. A spokesperson for Rady said the hospital expected to receive vaccine Tuesday.
In total, San Diego County will initially receive 28,275 doses of vaccine. Each will be given to hospital healthcare workers at highest risk of exposure.
Though mass immunization against COVID-19 may now be months away — a prospect that portends the eventual end of the pandemic — officials stressed that now is not the time to relax.
“We are calling on all Californians to continue doing their part by following local and state guidance, wearing a mask and staying home,” Newsom said in a statement. “Together, we will get through this and move forward to a healthy, safer, resilient California for all.”
That’s particularly the case as the state, like much of the nation, is in the throes of the worst wave of the disease. Record numbers of people are being infected and hospitalized with COVID-19, and space in intensive care units across the state has shrunk to dangerous lows.
The number of coronavirus-positive patients hospitalized statewide crossed 13,000 Saturday. That’s an all-time high and an increase of 76% from two weeks ago, according to the latest data from the state.
That figure includes 1,236 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Orange County and 4,203 in Los Angeles County — both record highs.
COVID-19 patients also are crowding into intensive care units at unprecedented levels. Statewide, there were 2,820 as of Saturday, a record high that’s 65% greater than two weeks ago.
Amid the ongoing coronavirus surge, health officials are keeping an especially wary eye on the state’s ICUs — precious resources that are increasingly in demand but limited by the number of hospital beds and how many highly trained professionals are available to staff them.
The worry, experts say, is that mortality rates could spike if ICUs can no longer accommodate the sickest patients.
“The worst-case scenario is what we saw back in the spring in New York City and in northern Italy where there were literally people in gurneys in hallways that were dying or near death, and that’s beyond a tragedy,” said Dr. Paul Simon, chief science officer for the L.A. County Department of Public Health, during a briefing last week. “It’s just something that we can’t let happen. We have to do everything possible to prevent that.”
Already, more Californians are dying than at any other point in the pandemic. Over the last week, the state has averaged 158 COVID-19 deaths every day, according to data compiled by The Times.
Officials have regularly emphasized that, because of the lagging nature of the coronavirus, it typically takes two to three weeks from when someone is infected for them to fall ill enough to go to the hospital. In other words, the current hospitalization numbers are fueled largely by people who were exposed to the virus weeks ago. And infection counts have continued to skyrocket since then.
Over the last week, California has averaged 31,777 new coronavirus cases a day — the highest level ever and a whopping 128% increase from two weeks ago, Times data show.
The fear is that the massive rise in cases will eventually trigger a tidal wave of new hospitalizations, further straining a healthcare system that’s already stretched thin.
The magnitude of what some officials have referred to as a surge on top of a surge could be staggering. L.A. County’s record-high hospitalization numbers, for instance, stem from infections confirmed two weeks ago, when the county was seeing an average of 4,200 new coronavirus cases per day.
As of Friday, the average caseload had ballooned to 10,200 new infections per day — meaning that if the same proportion holds, there could be more than 7,300 COVID-19 patients in the hospital two weeks from now, with nearly 1,700 of them in intensive care, L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.
There are only about 2,100 adult ICU beds across all county hospitals, she added, and those are also needed to treat serious ailments other than COVID-19.
“We’re on a very dangerous track to seeing unprecedented and catastrophic suffering and death,” she said.
In the face of the latest surge, California officials have reinstated sweeping restrictions on businesses and activities across much of the state.
Those new rules take effect when a state-defined region sees its available ICU capacity drop below 15%.
That’s already happened in three regions: Southern California, Greater Sacramento and the San Joaquin Valley. The other two regions, the Bay Area and rural Northern California, have remained above the threshold.
Though the additional restrictions are undoubtedly painful for businesses that have already been hammered by coronavirus-related limitations and closures — as well as unwelcome for residents desperate for some holiday relief — officials say the recent arrival of vaccines represents not just a light at the end of the tunnel, but a call for everyone to do their part to tamp down the surge and prevent unnecessary suffering and death.
“There’s still going to be time where we have to abide by the rules and mask and distance and keep our hands clean and not party like it’s 1999 and go to a big rave tomorrow night because I got my vaccine,” said Desi Kotis, UC San Francisco Health’s chief pharmacy executive. “We’re still going to have to be patient, and it’s going to take time. But the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train coming back at us anymore. It’s a bright beacon of hope.”
Times staff writers Alex Wigglesworth, Tracy Wilkinson and Maya Lau contributed to this report, as did Jonathan Wosen and Andrew Dyer of the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Associated Press.