Local officials react to president’s promise of vaccines for every adult by end of May
President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the country is on track to have enough supply of COVID-19 vaccines for every adult in America by the end of May, and health officials in Santa Barbara County said his statement is “ambitious, but not inconceivable.”
With the good news rolling in this week — the shipment of the new Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine, COVID-19 cases falling by 45% countywide in the past two weeks and high school sports resuming — the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be closer than it was last month.
In addition to saying the U.S. will have enough supply for every adult in three months, the president said he wants all teachers to receive at least one shot by the end of March. He also announced that Merck & Co., the world’s second-largest vaccine manufacturer, will help manufacture the new J&J vaccine.
Santa Barbara County’s public health officer, Dr. Henning Ansorg, told the News-Press Wednesday that Merck is now lending a helping hand in manufacturing and bottling the Pfizer vaccine too, and “this fact alone could potentially improve the timeline.”
“End of May sounds ambitious, but is not inconceivable, providing the companies exceed their production forecasts,” Dr. Ansorg said.
He added that companies Pfizer and Moderna have committed to an additional 400 million doses combined by the end of June, and J&J committed to producing 100 million doses by the end of June.
Dr. David Fisk, a Cottage Health infectious disease specialist, told the News-Press that he believes the supply will be there to achieve the president’s goal.
“I think that the time is approaching where our challenge in improving our vaccination rates is not going to be limited by vaccine supply, but instead limited by our national infrastructure and capacity to roll it out in these large numbers,” said Dr. Fisk, who also works for Sansum Clinic. “I certainly think that there will be adequate amounts of vaccines viable to vaccinate all interested adults by that time, but I think that it is unknown if we’ll be able to actually deliver that through the infrastructure for providing vaccines. But I’m hopeful we’ll get close to that, if not all the way there.”
Regarding getting a dose administered to every teacher by the end of March, Dr. Ansorg said, “Again, this is an ambitious goal, however potentially achievable, providing Pfizer and Moderna are accelerating their output of vaccines drastically in March. It would require more allocation of vaccines to the education sector, which could be done.”
Dr. Fisk said he believes this goal for teachers is an “admirable goal” and he does think it’s important for teachers to get vaccinated to reopen schools.
“At the same time, I think we can’t lose sight of the reality that the individuals in our community and society that have the absolute highest risk for COVID are the oldest individuals, so we have to provide vaccines to those groups as our utmost priority,” he said.
As of March 1, Cottage Health administered 15,580 doses for community members 65 and older and 7,881 doses for healthcare workers. As of Feb. 27 (taking into account a three-day lag), the county reported that a total of 94,874 doses of COVID vaccine have been administered, 60,088 of which were first doses and the rest second doses.
Dr. Ansorg said the 45% decrease in new COVID cases countywide was also a statewide, national and even international trend coming down from the holiday-induced surge.
“Vaccinations played a role in reducing cases with severe illness and deaths — however, not overall cases,” he said. “The reduction in overall cases is due to less travel, more mask wearing and social distancing and a mild winter for us with plenty of opportunity for outdoor activities. We are still not at the level of pre-Thanksgiving or winter holidays.”
Dr. Fisk echoed this sentiment, saying he doesn’t believe vaccines contributed to the decline, but noted it shows the natural course of the West Coast variants.
“That sort of new strain of the virus led to most of the upsurge that we saw, and then as that arrival of that strain in our population has reached its new equilibrium, it starts to trail off. That’s a natural course of how viruses spread,” he said, adding that if the country relaxes COVID restrictions, a fourth surge could take place.
Other big COVID-19 news this week was that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he plans to completely reopen the state 100% next Wednesday, allowing all businesses to fully reopen. He also revoked the statewide mask mandate. But orders from President Biden and from the CDC require that masks still be worn in federal buildings (an executive order) and on public transportation (a CDC order).
Schools, churches and businesses can decide their mask rules at their own discretion.
“Simply put: very irresponsible,” Dr. Ansorg said about the Texas governor’s decision. “Not grounded in scientific data and against all expert advice. It will, of course, have a negative impact on surrounding states.”
Dr. Fisk said this kind of relaxation of COVID protocols could be an issue. He said he thinks Gov. Abbott has made a mistake and that as it has done before, the virus could take advantage of the relaxed Texan residents as well.
On Wednesday, PATH’s CEO Joel John Roberts called on Gov. Gavin Newsom and public health agencies to prioritize the distribution of the one-dose J&J vaccines to people experiencing homelessness. (PATH Santa Barbara is a homeless shelter.)
“There are many barriers to accessing a second vaccine for an individual that is unhoused,” Mr. Roberts said in a statement. “This population often lacks access to transportation and cellular devices to schedule appointments and can be very hard-to-reach. Even for people who are stably housed, accessing a second shot has proven difficult.”
As more and more of the elderly population in Santa Barbara County receives vaccines, stories of relief and happiness continue to come from those vaccinated.
Al Mason has been a resident of Santa Barbara for 53 years, and, as a 92-year-old, received his COVID-19 vaccine several weeks ago. Mr. Mason is a Navy veteran from WWII, so he got vaccinated at a VA hospital in Los Angeles.
The Navy veteran shared that waiting in line for his COVID-19 vaccine took him back 78 years ago to when he waited in line with his platoon for their shots.
“Remember now, this was war time, and they didn’t know where they were going to send us. They gave us every shot in the world,” Mr. Mason told the News-Press Wednesday. “You walked in there and they injected you at least six times, three on each arm. A lot of guys were passing out.”
Laughing at the memory of one of his arms being paralyzed after those vaccinations, he said it was another sigh of relief when he got the call from the VA asking him if he’d like to make an appointment to get his COVID-19 vaccine.
“I felt like the good old government was taking care of me again when I got that phone call,” Mr. Mason said.
He added that his daughter, Donna Scott, drove him to his appointment, and pointed out a tear rolling down his cheek as he waited for his COVID vaccine alongside other veterans, and remembered his platoon buddies.
Mr. Mason said, “I felt at home and at peace.”