With millions more people becoming eligible COVID-19 vaccinations in the coming weeks but supplies of the medicine remaining limited, Southern California is facing a "difficult month" meeting demand in March, the county's public health director said Wednesday, but she predicted rosier conditions by April.
Barbara Ferrer shared figures showing that vaccination sites in the county are administering doses at a fraction of their overall capacity due to continued shortages in supplies of vaccine. The result is a system that makes extremely difficult for eligible residents -- health care workers and people aged 65 and older -- to make appointments for shots, with demand far exceeding supply.
And the situation will dramatically worsen starting March 1, when the county will open eligibility to an array of essential workers -- education/child care workers, including teachers and school staff; food and agricultural workers; and emergency services/law enforcement personnel. Ferrer said those groups are now estimated to include 1.8 million people in the county.
The state has also directed providers to make shots available beginning March 15 to any one aged 16 and older with a qualifying underlying health condition that puts them at significant risk of severe illness or death from COVID.
"We are going to have a difficult month, probably, in March,'' Ferrer said. "But I really do think the situation will change in April. So yes, very big constraints right now with vaccine supply."
She pointed to a variety of factors for optimism about improved vaccine supply as early as April, crediting President Joe Biden with accelerating the pace of vaccine purchases and noting that vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna have said they ``have been able to cut their production times down, which just means they'll have more doses out quicker.'' And a third manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, could have federal approval by the end of the month to distribute its single-dose vaccine.
"So I think it is safe to say, barring some unforeseen calamity, we will have much more vaccine available by April," Ferrer said.
But in the meantime, supply will remain low, and Ferrer said the current county allocation ``does not come close to allowing us to achieve herd immunity this spring,'' meaning continued health restrictions.
"With the reality that we have more infectious variants circulating in the state and our county ... it's never been more important for each of us to keep distance and wear a mask whenever we're out of our homes and around people we don't live with,'' she said.
Ferrer said another four cases of the coronavirus variant first detected in the United Kingdom have been found in Los Angeles County, raising the local total to 12. The variant is not considered more dangerous, but it is more easily spread from person to person. Ferrer said there are likely far more cases of the variant present in the county, but they haven't been detected due to the limited amount of gene sequencing that's needed to detect them.
Overall, the county's COVID-19 situation continues to improve, with average daily case numbers down 85% from earlier January, average hospitalizations down 61% and average daily deaths down 91%.
"The decreases that we see are meaningful and they're all good news, but the numbers still remain higher than the numbers we saw back in autumn," Ferrer said. "These numbers continuing to decrease is not a given. This will only continue if we're all in the game and we're all continuing to use the tools we have at hand."
The county reported another 162 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, raising the overall death toll in the county to 19,368.
Another 2,394 cases were confirmed, lifting the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 1,171,664.
According to state figures, the number of people hospitalized due to COVID in the county dropped to 2,757 as of Wednesday, with 859 people in intensive care. That's a vast drop from the 8,000 hospital cases reported in early January.
Ferrer said despite the improved numbers, health officials "remain concerned that actions of Super Bowl weekend and this past holiday weekend could lead to another increase in cases that we would start to see next week if individuals were not taking precautions."
Those concerns are likely contributing to continued restrictions on outdoor dining operations, most notably the rule barring eateries from turning on television sets on patios, preventing gatherings of sports fans. Ferrer said the county would be reviewing case numbers over the coming weeks before reevaluating the restriction.