SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The first cases of the South African strain of the coronavirus were reported Wednesday in California, a worrisome development that comes as the state’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummet but its vaccination rollout continues to draw criticism.
The cases were found in Alameda and Santa Clara counties, both in the San Francisco Bay Area. In total, the state has less than 1,500 identified cases of different variants, Newsom said. Alameda County officials offered few details on their individual, saying they had just started their investigation, while Santa Clara County's health officer said the individual had an extensive international traveling history and quarantined as mandated after returning home.
Scientists and health officials fear the variants could be more contagious, less responsive to treatments and more likely to re-infect people who already had the virus. The South African variant was first identified in the United States late last month in South Carolina.
“The issue of mutations is top of mind,” Newsom said during a visit to Fresno, the latest in a series of stops across the state to highlight vaccination efforts.
Broadly, the state is making progress on controlling the virus. Less than 5% of people tested are now turning up positive results, and daily confirmed infection cases have dropped to about 8,400 from a high of more than 50,000 a month ago, he said.
Newsom touted that more than 5 million vaccine doses have been administered, but the state continues to face questions and criticism over the rollout of the much-desired shots. The state plans to shift next week from a county-driven vaccine effort to a centralized approach run by Blue Shield of California. The state has yet to release the details or cost of the contract with the major health insurer, though Newsom said he will by the end of this week.
Meanwhile, local goverments say they aren't receiving enough vaccine for mass vaccination sites to operate at full capacity.
In a Wednesday briefing, Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti said the city will exhaust its supply of first doses by Thursday, forcing it to close Dodger Stadium and four other city vaccination sites on Friday and Saturday.
Los Angeles only received 16,000 new doses this week, or about the number it uses in a typical day, the mayor said.
“This is not where I want to be,” Garcetti said. “It’s not where we deserve to be.”
In an afternoon legislative hearing, two county health officers said the state’s current vaccine database is undercounting the number of vaccines administered, a development they fear could result in counties getting fewer doses going forward because it may look like they are not using their doses quickly.
“The system isn’t broken, it just looks like it is because doses being administered aren’t showing up,” said Yolo County Public Health Officer Dr. Aimee Sisson. The county received 14,000 doses and administered 10,400 to date, she said. But the state system says the county got 14,500 shots and gave just 7,500.
Dr. Paul Simon, Los Angeles County’s chief science officer, said his county has received 1.2 million doses and administered 80% within four days of them being received. But he’s not confident the state’s data system reflects those numbers.
Incomplete data is making it difficult to track how many doses are going to Black and Latino residents who appear to be underserved, the two health officers said. Dr. Erica Pan, the state epidemiologist, gave a breakdown of racial and ethnic data on vaccines to a different state legislative panel on Monday. But the state hasn’t made that information publicly available on its website.
State officials say the Blue Shield partnership will remedy some of the data collection issues. The new, centralized system will be designed to provide “more clarity, more transparency and more accountability" around the distribution of vaccines, Newsom said.
The Biden administration is now giving the state a three-week preview of how many vaccine doses to expect, and the state is trying to give counties a similar forecast, he said.
“This is dynamic and as you know well we’ve had fits and starts over the course of the last few months,” Newsom said.
Still, counties say they lack information about how exactly the new system will work. Santa Clara County wants requested an exemption from using the new state portal for residents to sign up for vaccines, called MyTurn, but the state will require all counties to use it. Orange County health officials said they don’t want to ask people who already registered for appointments with the county system to have to sign up again with the state.
The state plans to integrate county vaccination sites into the new system, State Chief Information Officer Amy Tong said.
Dr. Tomás Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health, repeatedly acknowledged during the legislative hearing that the state's vaccine approach needs improvement.
“What we are doing now is not working,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Democrat from Riverside. He said the rollout so far has been “nothing short of chaotic.”
“We completely agree with what you’re saying,” Aragón responded.
In Fresno, though, Newsom won praise from local and state elected officials, as he has at similar events around the state this week. Democratic officials showered him with praise for his handling of the virus in a clear attempt to rebut criticism as a campaign to recall Newsom gains steam. In contrast, a protester using a megaphone shouted “recall Gavin" during the news conference.
“I don’t care that you’re Democrat or Republican, I care that you’re healthy and safe," Newsom answered when asked to respond to the recall effort.
Associated Press journalists John Antczak in Los Angeles, Don Thompson in Sacramento, Janie Har in San Francisco and Amy Taxin in Orange County contributed.