Federal authorities on Tuesday urged states to expand the availability of the vaccines and offer them to anyone 65 or older, and to people older than age 16 who have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to serious illness from COVID.
The new state guidance addresses only people aged 65 and older. It does not advance eligibility among people with underlying health conditions.
"There is no higher priority than efficiently and equitably distributing these vaccines as quickly as possible to those who face the gravest consequences,'' Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a statement announcing the change in state guidance. "Individuals 65 and older are now the next group eligible to start receiving vaccines. To those not yet eligible for vaccines, your turn is coming. We are doing everything we can to bring more vaccine into the state.''
Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the county does not immediately have enough doses of the vaccine to expand the distribution to those 65 and older. She said the county's top priority remains getting health care workers vaccinated, with hopes of providing doses to another 500,000 such workers by the end of the month.
"We're not done with our health care workers," Ferrer said. "We actually don't have enough vaccine right now to be able to get done more quickly with our health-care workers."
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Ferrer said it will likely take until the end of January to finish vaccinating all health care workers listed in Phase 1A of the priority list. Once that phase is completed, the county will move to Phase 1B. The beginning of that phase will now include people 65 and over, along with select essential workers, such as those in education, child care, emergency services and food and agriculture -- in early February.
According to the state, a website is being set up for people to register for email notifications about when they will be eligible for shots. Los Angeles County already has an email system set up for people to sign up to receive updates on vaccine distribution. People can register here.
Younger residents with serious underlying health conditions are not eligible until Phase 1C, which Ferrer said would likely not begin until late March.
The changes come as several large-scale vaccination sites open in Southern California. Dodger Stadium will open later this week as a drive-thru vaccination facility -- for now reserved solely for health care workers. A Disneyland parking area in Anaheim and Petco Park in San Diego are also being used as vaccination clinics. The Long Beach Convention Center will also be used to administer vaccines.
Meanwhile, county officials say while hospitals remain full with very little available ICU capacity, the increase seems to be hitting a plateau at the moment.
Shanna Hall, vice president of nursing at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, said there is limited optimism as growth in new patients appears to flatten. Still, the current situation remains dire.
"Like so many hospitals in LA County, Torrance Memorial is seeing an unprecedented volume of COVID patients due to holiday gatherings and travel," Hall said. "Admissions have been rising since the beginning of December. It's really stretching us."
Los Angeles County reported an additional 281 deaths on Wednesday, for a total of 12,995 deaths since the pandemic started. The county reported an additional 14,564 new cases, for 958,497 total cases. There are 7,949 patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
More than 5 million people have been tested for the virus, and the current positivity rate for those who are being tested is around 18%.
While the number of total confirmed cases is quickly approaching 1 million, county officials said there are so many cases that go undiagnosed because people carry the virus without symptoms and therefore don't get tested, it is likely that as many as one out of every three Los Angeles County residents has at some point had a coronavirus infection since the start of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Orange County on Tuesday announced that it would immediately offer the vaccines to people 65 and older, acting in advance of the state's revised guidance. Long Beach health officials announced Tuesday they will begin offering vaccines to residents 75 and older beginning Saturday, with clinics held weekly for people in that age group.
City News Service contributed to this report.