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Hospitals likely to be first local recipients of COVID-19 vaccine

Kern public health officials are planning to give local hospitals and health-care systems a "prominent role" in administering the county's initial supply of COVID-19 vaccinations once they become available, likely bypassing pharmacies and doctors offices until doses become more plentiful.

If approved by state officials, the strategy would put the county's initial supply of vaccines in the hands of relatively few organizations, potentially making it easier to limit access to people identified as being at greatest risk of infection.

A spokeswoman for the county Public Health Department described the plan by email Tuesday as the agency was preparing to send state officials a draft proposal for how California's first available vaccines will be distributed locally as soon as this month. The county did not share a copy of the draft document with The Californian.

On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced California expects to receive 327,000 doses of a COVID-19 vaccine developed by pharmaceutical-maker Pfizer Inc. by the middle of this month, assuming the shots are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Shipped in dry ice for preservation, the vaccines are expected to be the first of two shots required for immunization against the virus, with the second shots coming at an unspecified later date.

The California Department of Public Health said by email hospitals and local health departments will get the majority of the vaccines and that they will be administered to health-care workers, "especially those working directly with COVID-19 patients."

Kern Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Corson provided few details about how the county foresees vaccines being distributed locally, saying Kern's approach will largely reflect priorities set by state and federal government agencies. That suggests frontline health-care workers may be among the first to be vaccinated, followed by other medical workers at high risk during the pandemic, possibly followed by first responders and other essential workers, then minorities who have suffered disproportionately high rates of COVID-19 infection.

Corson emphasized the vaccine will arrive in limited supplies locally and that "it will take some time before (the) vaccine is widely available." in the meantime, she noted, hospitals will likely be first to get the vaccine in Kern.

"Hospitals and large health-care systems will likely play a prominent role in administering (the) vaccine to priority populations," she wrote, adding that eventually the distribution channel will widen.

"Like with the flu vaccine," she stated, "we continue to rely on important partnerships with local health-care providers and pharmacies to offer vaccinations to our community."

Local hospital systems said they expect to be ready to carry out inoculations as soon as vaccines arrive.

"Mercy & Memorial Hospitals have well-established protocols in place to receive, store and administer vaccinations and are ready to partner with local and state health agencies to help safely distribute COVID-19 vaccines," Dignity Health communications specialist Jessica Neeley said by email Tuesday. "At this time, we do not know how many doses our sites will receive."

"Mercy & Memorial Hospitals has taken steps," she continued, "to prepare for vaccine distribution including ordering additional ultra-cold-storage freezers for vaccines that require storage at colder temperatures."

Adventist Health, which has hospitals in Bakersfield, Tehachapi and Delano, said by email it was in early stages of planning for vaccinations and wasn't sure what the process will look like. Meanwhile, Bakersfield Heart Hospital said it has been coordinating with local officials to prepare for the vaccine rollout.

“Bakersfield Heart Hospital has been working collaboratively with Kern County Department of Public Health on the COVID-19 Vaccine Planning Process and we look forward to assisting in vaccinating our health-care personnel, essential workers and community members once a vaccine becomes available,” spokeswoman Laura Sabedra said by email.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a top authority on the novel coronavirus, posted on its website that it has been working with health departments and others to develop plans that can be put into place when a vaccine wins federal approval.

Safety is a top priority, the CDC said, and followed by widespread availability.

"The goal is for everyone to be able to easily get a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as large quantities are available," its website states. "The plan is to have several thousand vaccination providers available, including doctors’ offices, retail pharmacies, hospitals, and federally qualified health centers."

As far as who will get vaccinated first, the CDC said public health experts are working on a plan to distribute doses "in a fair, ethical and transparent way." It said it will make recommendations on how to proceed with vaccinations based on input from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which it said has received input from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

It noted vaccines may not initially be recommended for children and that although doses will be given out free of charge, health-care providers will be able to charge administrative fees that may be reimbursed by patients' insurers or government agencies.

The California Department of Public Health released a draft interim plan in mid-October saying the primary goal of the state's Community Vaccine Advisory Committee will be to ensure vaccination planning supports all Californians, "but particularly for individuals in communities that are disproportionally impacted, including Latinos, African Americans, Native Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, and other Asians including Filipinos."

The draft said expectations for limited initial availability of a vaccine mean first priority will probably go to health-care personnel treating patients with COVID-19. After that, it said, could be health-care workers who are most likely to be exposed to the virus. After them would come people at increased risk for severe illness or death from COVID-19, followed by "other essential workers."

The county public health department said by email last week that equitable distribution and administration of a vaccine is an "overarching principle," and that first in line would be "those with the highest risk of becoming infected and spreading COVID-19."

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf