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Health department debuts COVID-19 vaccination site at the fairgrounds — but awaits more doses

The Kern County Public Health Services Department has set the stage for its first COVID-19 mass vaccination clinic, but the rate of vaccines will start at a trickle. That’s partially due to the fact that the county just launched its site at the Kern County Fairgrounds, but also because the county isn’t being allotted much of the vaccine just yet.

Today marks the first day that Kern County residents will receive COVID-19 vaccines at the fairgrounds. Michelle Corson, spokeswoman for Kern County Public Health Services, said the site is in a soft-launch mode. That means it isn’t yet open to the public, although she encourages residents to check in with the department’s website for the date it finally does go public.

“We’re working out the kinks,” Corson said.

In this soft-launch mode it will administer about 300 vaccines each day, four days a week, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will offer vaccines to people with appointments in approved tiers who had already been in touch with the department. But the plan is to ultimately administer 5,000 vaccines a day to people who walk up and drive up 12 hours a day.

“Right now we don’t have enough vaccine that we could do 5,000 a day,” said Tom Beckett, tech services manager of Kern County Public Health Services. “We’re hopeful that that is going to change soon. And as that changes, we will scale this up.”

The county can’t set a date for when it will scale up until it has more information about allotments.

Brynn Carrigan, assistant director of Kern County Public Health Services, said that can be a harried process. Currently, the county receives news of the allotment on Tuesday, the number varies drastically week to week and the county has until Thursday to figure out how to apportion it among providers.

“That makes planning difficult,” Carrigan said.

Smaller providers throughout the county can sometimes only offer 50 to 100 vaccines per day and some are booked. Launching the fairgrounds will take some of the pressure off of those smaller providers — or people calling around endlessly trying to find an available appointment. The fairgrounds is a known, familiar location.

She said she is hopeful there will be enough staffing to meet the needs of the community. Nurses from school districts, retired nurses, students from Cal State Bakersfield and others have all said they would chip in with the effort. Traveling nurses have also been hired to staff the effort.

“We have seen our community really step up and help,” Carrigan said.

Logistics

When the fairgrounds site is open to the public, those who want a vaccine and are in an approved tier will make an appointment either through the Kern County Public Health Services’ website or a state website that has yet to be launched.

Walk-up patients who have an appointment will be pre-screened for any signs of COVID-19 at the Main Gates on P Street. They will also begin filling out their paperwork. Next, patients will wind through a socially-distanced serpentine line while they await their vaccine. Right now the county is offering the Pfizer vaccine. Those who have a history of severe allergic reactions will be given a red dot.

Those who have received their vaccines will be guided over to chairs in Building 3 where they will be monitored to ensure that they do not have any immediate negative reactions to the vaccine. Most patients will be guided to large sections where they will sit for 15 minutes. But patients with red dots have a section where they will sit for 30 minutes. Paramedics will be on hand in case anyone needs assistance.

Those who don’t need help will be welcome to leave — and then come back in a month and do it all over again for their second dose.

Prevention

Right now the fairgrounds is being actively deployed as a site for preventing COVID spread. One prong is the vaccination clinic and the other is the contact tracing area set up in Building One.

Forty-four nursing students from CSUB are temporary employees who have set up shop to assist Public Health Services in contacting every single positive COVID-19 case in the county. The department outgrew its offices in October and has made its home at the fairgrounds since December.

But just outside the door of Building One are portable showers and restrooms, signs that the space is ready to be transformed into a field hospital whenever hospitals need the extra space for low-acuity COVID patients or non-COVID patients. On a media tour of the building, Public Health Director Matt Constantine said that’s still a real possibility, but he pointed to the nursing students making calls.

“The people behind me are trying to prevent that from happening,” Constantine said.

His department is putting an item on the county Board of Supervisors agenda next week that he calls “insurance” just in case Building One does need to be transformed into a field hospital. It would allow the county to enter into an agreement with AMI Expeditionary Healthcare, a company that has a contract for an alternate care site in Fresno. The contract would allow the county to add 25 beds at a time to the field hospital — up to 200 beds.

Constantine called this contract “insurance you would never want to use, but it’s a life-saver.”