Kaiser Health News

Some said the vaccine rollout would be a ‘nightmare’ -- and they were right

WASHINGTON — Even before there was a vaccine, some seasoned doctors and public health experts warned, Cassandra-like, that its distribution would be “a logistical nightmare."

After Week 1 of the rollout, “nightmare" sounds like an apt description.

Dozens of states say they didn't receive nearly the number of promised doses. Pfizer says millions of doses sat in its storerooms, because no one from President Donald Trump's Operation Warp Speed task force told them where to ship them. A number of states have few sites that can handle the ultra-cold storage required for the Pfizer product, so, for example, front-line workers in Georgia have had to travel 40 minutes to get a shot. At some hospitals, residents treating COVID patients protested that they had not received the vaccine while administrators did, even though they work from home and don't treat patients.

The potential for more chaos is high. Dr. Vivek Murthy, named as the next surgeon general under President-elect Joe Biden, said this week that the Trump administration's prediction — that the general population would get the vaccine in April — was realistic only if everything went smoothly. He instead predicted wide distribution by summer or fall.

The Trump administration had expressed confidence that the rollout would be smooth, because it was being overseen by a four-star general, Gustave Perna, an expert in logistics. But it turns out that getting fuel, tanks and tents into war-torn mountainous Afghanistan is in many ways simpler than passing out a vaccine in our privatized, profit-focused and highly fragmented medical system. Gen. Perna apologized this week, saying he wanted to “take personal responsibility." It's really mostly not his fault.

Throughout the COVID pandemic, the U.S. health care system has shown that it is not built for a coordinated pandemic response (among many other things). States took wildly different COVID prevention measures; individual hospitals varied in their ability to face this kind of national disaster; and there were huge regional disparities in test availability — with a slow ramp-up in availability due, at least in some part, because no payment or billing mechanism was established.

Why should vaccine distribution be any different?

In World War II, toymakers were conscripted to make needed military hardware airplane parts, and commercial shipyards to make military transport vessels. The Trump administration has been averse to invoking the Defense Production Act, which could help speed and coordinate the process of vaccine manufacture and distribution. On Tuesday, it indicated it might do so, but only to help Pfizer obtain raw materials that are in short supply, so that the drugmaker could produce — and sell — more vaccines in the United States.

Instead of a central health-directed strategy, we have multiple companies competing to capture their financial piece of the pandemic health care pie, each with its patent-protected product as well as its own supply chain and shipping methods.

Add to this bedlam the current decision-tree governing distribution: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made official recommendations about who should get the vaccine first — but throughout the pandemic, many states have felt free to ignore the agency's suggestions.

Instead, Operation Warp Speed allocated initial doses to the states, depending on population. From there, an inscrutable mix of state officials, public health agencies and lobbyists seem to be determining where the vaccine should go. In some states, counties requested an allotment from the state, and then they tried to accommodate requests from hospitals, which made their individual algorithms for how to dole out the precious cargo. Once it became clear there wasn't enough vaccine to go around, each entity made its own adjustments.

Some doses are being shipped by FedEx or UPS. But Pfizer — which did not fully participate in Operation Warp Speed — is shipping much of the vaccine itself. In nursing homes, some vaccines will be delivered and administered by employees of CVS and Walgreens, though issues of staffing and consent remain there.

The Moderna vaccine, rolling out this week, will be packaged by the “pharmaceutical services provider" Catalent in Bloomington, Indiana, and then sent to McKesson, a large pharmaceutical logistics and distribution outfit. It has offices in places like Memphis, Tennessee, and Louisville, which are near air hubs for FedEx and UPS, which will ship them out.

Is your head spinning yet?

Looking forward, basic questions remain for 2021: How will essential workers at some risk (transit workers, teachers, grocery store employees) know when it's their turn? (And it will matter which city you work in.) What about people with chronic illness — and then everyone else? And who administers the vaccine — doctors or the local drugstore?

In Belgium, where many hospitals and doctors are private but work within a significant central organization, residents will get an invitation letter “when it's their turn." In Britain, the National Joint Committee on Vaccination has settled on a priority list for vaccinations — those over 80, those who live or work in nursing homes, and health care workers at high risk. The National Health Service will let everyone else “know when it's your turn to get the vaccine " from the government-run health system.

In the United States, I dread a mad scramble — as in, “Did you hear the CVS on P Street got a shipment?" But this time, it's not toilet paper.

Combine this vision of disorder with the nation's high death toll, and it's not surprising that there is intense jockeying and lobbying — by schools, unions, even people with different types of preexisting diseases — over who should get the vaccine first, second and third. It's hard to “wait your turn" in a country where there are 200,000 new cases and as many as 2,000 new daily COVID deaths — a tragic per capita order of magnitude higher than in many other developed countries.

So kudos and thanks to the science and the scientists who made the vaccine in record time. I'll eagerly hold out my arm — so I can see the family and friends and colleagues I've missed all these months. If only I can figure out when I'm eligible, and where to go to get it.

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No more ICU beds at the main public hospital in the nation’s largest county as COVID surges

No More ICU Beds at the Main Public Hospital in the Nation's Largest County as COVID Surges

Bernard J. Wolfson Photos by Heidi de Marco December 18, 2020

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It can be republished for free.

She lay behind a glass barrier, heavily sedated, kept alive by a machine that blew oxygen into her lungs through a tube taped to her mouth and lodged at the back of her throat. She had deteriorated rapidly since arriving a short time earlier.

“Her respiratory system is failing, and her cardiovascular system is failing," said Dr. Luis Huerta, a critical care expert in the intensive care unit. The odds of survival for the patient, who could not be identified for privacy reasons, were poor, Huerta said.

The woman, in her 60s, was among 50 patients so ill with COVID-19 that they required constant medical attention this week in ICUs at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center, a 600-bed public hospital on L.A.'s Eastside. A large majority of them had diabetes, obesity or hypertension.

An additional 100 COVID patients, less ill at least for the moment, were in other parts of the hospital, and the numbers were growing. In the five days that ended Wednesday, eight COVID patients at the hospital died — double the number from the preceding five days.

As COVID patients have flooded into LAC+USC in recent weeks, they've put an immense strain on its ICU capacity and staff — especially since non-COVID patients, with gunshot wounds, drug overdoses, heart attacks and strokes, also need intensive care.

No more ICU beds were available, said Dr. Brad Spellberg, the hospital's chief medical officer.

Similar scenes — packed wards, overworked medical staffers, harried administrators and grieving families — are playing out in hospitals across the state and the nation.

In California, only 4.1% of ICU beds were available as of Wednesday. In the 11-county Southern California region, just 0.5 % of ICU beds were open, and in the San Joaquin Valley, none were.

The county of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, was perilously close to zero capacity.

County health officials reported Wednesday that the number of daily new COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations had all soared beyond their previous highs for the entire pandemic.

LAC+USC has had a heavy COVID burden since the beginning of the pandemic, largely because the low-income, predominantly Latino community it serves has been hit so hard. Latinos represent about 39% of California's population but have accounted for nearly 57% of the state's COVID cases and 48% of its COVID deaths, according to data updated this week.

Many people who live near the hospital have essential jobs and “are not able to work from home. They are going out there and exposing themselves because they have to make a living," Spellberg said. And, he said, “they don't live in giant houses where they can isolate themselves in a room."

The worst cases end up lying amid a tangle of tubes and bags, in ICU rooms designed to prevent air and viral particles from flowing out into the hall. The sickest among them, like the woman described above, need machines to breathe for them. They are fed through nose tubes, their bladders draining into catheter bags, while intravenous lines deliver fluids and medications to relieve pain, keep them sedated and raise their blood pressure to a level necessary for life.

To take some pressure off the ICUs, the hospital this week opened a new “step-down" unit, for patients who are still very sick but can be managed with a slightly lower level of care. Spellberg said he hopes the unit will accommodate up to 10 patients.

Hospital staff members have also been scouring the insurance plans of patients to see if they can be transferred to other hospitals. “But at this point, it's become almost impossible, because they're all filling up," Spellberg said.

Two weeks ago, a smaller percentage of COVID patients in the ER were showing signs of severe disease, which meant fewer needed to be admitted to the hospital or the ICU than during the July surge. That was helping, as Spellberg put it, to keep the water below the top of the levee.

But not anymore.

“Over the last 10 days, it is my distinct impression that the severity has worsened again, and that's why our ICU has filled up quickly," Spellberg said Monday.

The total number of COVID patients in the hospital, and the number in its ICUs, are now well above the peak of July — and both are nearly six times as high as in late October. “This is the worst it's been," Spellberg said. And it will only get worse over the coming weeks, he added, if people travel and gather with their extended families over Christmas and New Year's as they did for Thanksgiving.

“Think New York in April. Think Italy in March," Spellberg said. “That's how bad things could get."

They are already bad enough. Nurses and other medical staffers are exhausted from long months of extremely laborious patient care that is only getting more intense, said Lea Salinas, a nurse manager in one of the hospital's ICU units. To avoid being short-staffed, she's been asking her nurses to work overtime.

Normally, ICU nurses are assigned to two patients each shift. But one really sick COVID patient can take up virtually the entire shift — even with help from other nurses. Jonathan Magdaleno, a registered nurse in the ICU, said he might have to spend 10 hours during a 12-hour shift at the bedside of an extremely ill patient.

Even in the best case, he said, he typically has to enter a patient's room every 30 minutes, because the bags delivering medications and fluids empty at different rates. Every time nurses or other care providers enter a patient's room, they must put on cumbersome protective gear — then take it off when they leave.

One of the most delicate and difficult tasks is a maneuver known as “proning," in which a patient in acute respiratory distress is flipped onto his or her stomach to improve lung function. Salinas said it can take a half-hour and require up to six nurses and a respiratory therapist, because tubes and wires have to be disconnected, then reconnected — not to mention the risks involved in moving an extremely fragile person. And they must do it twice, because every proned patient needs to be flipped back later in the day.

For some nurses, working on the COVID ward at LAC+USC feels very personal. That's the case for Magdaleno, a native Spanish speaker who was born in Mexico City. “I grew up in this community," he said. “Even if you don't want to, you see your parents, you see your grandparents, you see your mom in these patients, because they speak the language."

He planned to spend Christmas only with members of his own household and urged everyone else to do the same. “If you lose any member of your family, then what's the purpose of Christmas?" he asked. “Is it worth it going to the mall right now? Is it worth even getting a gift for somebody who's probably going to die?"

That the darkest hour of the pandemic should come precisely at the moment when COVID vaccines are beginning to arrive is especially poignant, said Dr. Paul Holtom, chief epidemiologist at LAC+USC.

“The tragic irony of this is that the light is at the end of the tunnel," he said. “The vaccine is rolling out as we speak, and people just need to keep themselves alive until they can get the vaccine."

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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