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As calls for appointments pile up, Kern County spends millions for fairgrounds vaccination site

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People over age 65 who have an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine line up outside the Kern County Fairgrounds in mid-January.

Kern County’s mass vaccination effort at the fairgrounds is expected to cost $5 million as officials plan to use hundreds of employees to soon inoculate up to 5,000 people a day against COVID-19.

At a Tuesday meeting, the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved the funding for its vaccination site, which began accepting appointments of health care workers and those over 65 at the start of this week.

“It really is the greatest mobilization of county resources I’ve seen in my time in government,” Supervisor Mike Maggard said during the meeting. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Demand for vaccinations has proven to be extremely high. On Monday, the first day appointments became available, the Kern County Public Health Services Department received 1,937 calls — the highest ever — from people hoping to use the fairgrounds site.

By Tuesday afternoon, the county announced appointments had been filled for the remainder of the week for the fairgrounds site.

It is not known when the public will be able to schedule appointments again. The county said a follow-up announcement would be made for next week's schedule when the county receives an update on Kern's next vaccine allotment.

Still, the call volume will likely continue to strain county resources. The Fire Department’s Emergency Operations Center has been activated to help take on the additional burden.

“We are trying to quickly adapt to these unprecedented increases; however, we do know that some of our callers experienced some significant hold times yesterday,” Public Health Assistant Director Brynn Carrigan told supervisors Tuesday. “We kindly ask for patience as we adapt to these new demands.”

But a limited supply will throttle the county’s ability to distribute the vaccine to everyone who is eligible and wants it. And demand is expected to soar even higher when Gov. Gavin Newsom extends eligibility to the emergency services, food and agriculture and education workers who are in the next phase of the state’s rollout.

While as many as 90 health care providers are distributing vaccines throughout Kern County, the fairgrounds site is expected to handle a significant load when supply becomes more widely available. On Monday, the county scheduled 600 appointments and hopes to vaccinate 2,000 residents at the site by Saturday.

“We are open at a capacity that meets the amount of vaccine that is currently allotted to us,” said Public Health Services Technology Services Manager Tom Beckett. “We’re as quickly as possible building this out so when more vaccine is allocated to Kern County we will be ready, and we will be ready to grow at whatever the pace is that the vaccine increases to us.”

In addition to the vaccination site, the county expanded funding for several other COVID-19 priorities. A total of $2.5 million was approved for additional testing sites in Arvin and Bakersfield and to fund existing sites. Supervisors also diverted $600,000 to fund intensive care unit nurses. The board has already allocated $12.6 million to the purpose.

To fund the programs, the county used around $3.3 million in unused CARES Act funds that had been set for small business forgivable loans, personal protective equipment supply to businesses, a food delivery service to vulnerable residents and grants to nonprofit organizations. In the meeting’s agenda, the County Administrative Office said those programs were ending. In addition, around $5.3 million in unallocated CARES Act funds will be used.

A map of health care providers offering COVID-19 vaccines is available at kernpublichealth.com. For questions about the vaccine, call 868-0165.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.