(TNS) - San Francisco opened the first of several neighborhood coronavirus immunization sites in the Mission District on Monday, moving forward with plans to reach communities hit hardest by the pandemic even as vaccine supply remained severely limited.
The new clinic was hailed as another hopeful sign of nearing an end to the pandemic, especially welcome after the state and Bay Area emerged from the single deadliest month so far. More than a third of COVID-19 deaths in the Bay Area occurred in January, with 1,677 people losing their lives last month.
The staggering toll reflects state and national numbers: Nearly 15,000 Californians and more than 95,000 people in the U.S. died from the virus in January. In total, more than 441,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19.
The worst surge of the pandemic appears to be waning, though. Cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19 peaked in late December and early January. But public health experts say the need to quickly vaccinate people and dramatically slow down spread of the disease has never been more urgent. Several new variants that may be able to partially evade vaccines already are spreading in some parts of the world and have arrived in the United States.
"We just need more vaccines to get out the door and get into arms as quickly as possible," said Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco's health director, at the Mission District vaccination clinic on Monday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday that 471 cases of three different variants have been identified in at least 32 states. Scientists in Stanford University's Clinical Virology Lab have discovered variants first identified in the United Kingdom and Brazil in the Bay Area, and the U.K. variant in particular appears to be spreading in parts of Southern California.
Colfax said the variants found in California seem to be largely covered by the vaccines already approved.
At the Mission District vaccination site, located in a parking lot at 24th and Capp streets, city and state officials cheered Monday morning as the leaders of two Latino nonprofits who have been serving the community throughout the pandemic received their first shots.
The Mission site is the first of what city officials plan for a network of neighborhood vaccine clinics. The Department of Public Health expects to open similar sites in the Bayview, Excelsior, Visitacion Valley and other neighborhoods with the highest infection rates for the coronavirus. The city is also partnering with Safeway pharmacies to bring vaccines to various neighborhoods.
"I'm really excited today," Mayor London Breed said at the Mission vaccine site Monday. "We know this is the best shot we have at getting back to the lives that we all know and miss."
California has administered more than 3.5 million vaccine doses so far, or about 60% of its total supply.
The state on Monday released letters of intent signed late last week with Blue Shield of California and Kaiser Permanente to hand over management of its vaccine distribution network in an effort to speed up the delivery of doses. Though the contracts have not been finalized, the letters confirmed that the two Oakland-based health providers would be working at or near cost and "will not profit from this agreement."
Among other responsibilities, Blue Shield will help design a system of incentive payments to encourage vaccine providers to use their doses more quickly, at a higher volume and with a focus on communities that have been hit disproportionately hard by the coronavirus, according to the letters. Kaiser will oversee at least two mass vaccination sites and other efforts to vaccinate hard-to-reach populations.
San Francisco has built up the infrastructure to administer 10,000 vaccine injections a day, but is getting only around 11,000 a week, Colfax said. Breed said San Francisco has so far received 150,000 doses and issued over 90,000 of those. The rest are scheduled for second doses.
Though counties are allowed to offer vaccines to all residents age 65 and older, San Francisco is still prioritizing health care workers, plus in-home support services staff and long-term care residents. So far, 104,000 out of 210,000 people in that first phase have received a dose, Colfax said.
"We've seen what I call a relatively steady state compared to where it was a few weeks ago, but we're still at a very low number of vaccines," Colfax said.
Ramping up the new site in the Mission District depends on supply. During a soft-launch period, the health department said, the site will administer about 120 vaccinations a day. The site may increase to 400 vaccinations a day as supply increases.
The Mission site currently operates on an invitation, appointment-only basis, serving community health workers and local residents over age 65 within the Unidos en Salud/United in Health network.
The new location targets a community that has been disproportionately impacted by the virus. Latinos in San Francisco make up more than 42% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the city, despite accounting for just 15% of the population, according to the most recent public health data. They also account for over 20% of the deaths from the disease.
"It's taken the entire barrio to deal with this pandemic," said Roberto Hernandez, co-founder of the Latino Task Force. "A lot of the people we work with are the most vulnerable people, the hardest-working people, minimum wage workers who have no health insurance, they have no 401K. They have no retirement plans. This pandemic has hurt them in more ways than you can ever imagine."
The site opened at 9 a.m. for the first appointment Monday. By 10 a.m., Jose Ortiz, family support specialist with nonprofit Casa Corazon, had received his first dose. The 43-year-old was eligible as a community health care worker since he works closely with impacted families. Ortiz said everyone in his community knows at least one person who has fallen ill or died from the virus.
"When you work with people all the time, you need to protect yourself and your family, and their family as well," he said. Placing a clinic in "the heart of the Mission is very important, so everybody can see and go."
The new clinic will work in conjunction with a coronavirus testing site at the BART plaza at 24th and Mission streets, which operates four days a week. The privately funded vaccine clinic grew out of Unidos en Salud, a collaboration between UCSF and the Latino Task Force that has run testing sites in the Mission.
San Francisco opened its first mass vaccination site, run by UCSF Health in partnership with the city's Department of Public Health and private health care providers, on Jan. 22 at the City College of San Francisco main campus. The city is working on creating a centralized appointment booking system, Colfax said Monday.
"This is a community that never stands by and lets anyone fall to the wayside," said Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who represents the Mission, at the vaccination site opening on Monday. "Hang in there, San Franciscans. We're almost out of this and we can get to the end together."
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Alexei Koseff contributed to this report.
Mallory Moench and Aidin Vaziri are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @mallorymoench, @MusicSF
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