Vaccine access codes being misused, shared by those gaming the system

A "disgusted" Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis lashed out Tuesday at people who have been gaming the COVID-19 vaccination appointment system to "jump the line" and get shots at clinics established specifically for under-served minority and low-income residents who have struggled to get vaccinations.

"I am not surprised. I'm disgusted," Solis said during a Board of Supervisors discussion of the COVID vaccination effort. "And I'm not disgusted at the work that we're doing, but I'm more disgusted about the behavior of people in the public that are not being responsible."

Solis and other supervisors expressed outrage over people who have been managing to obtain access codes set up for vaccination clinics that were set up to target ethnic and low-income communities. The problem was highlighted over the weekend at the Ramona Gardens public housing complex in Boyle Heights, where Gov. Gavin Newsom was on hand for a clinic designed to serve residents of that community.

As the clinic began operating, with a host of elected officials on hand, it was clear that some people in line to get vaccinated had driven there
from more affluent parts of the Southland.

"People don't usually go in and visit from outside communities like Beverly Hills or the Westside or other parts of the county," Solis said. "But on this occasion, I happened to see people that I know don't live and reside there. This particular pod was set up for 250 individuals particularly addressing the needs of seniors 65 and older. The majority of the folks who live in that complex -- there are well over 600 -- the majority of them live in poverty. They happen to be Latinx, some Asian, some African-American. I can tell you off the bat I was very alarmed to hear individuals had gained access from the code, the code that is just given I think a day or even hours before the actual pod is set up, and somehow they were able to get in line ahead of the people this was intended for."

County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said the problem originates with the state's MyTurn vaccination-appointment system. She said the system "doesn't allow us the level of flexibility that we need to do targeted vaccinations."

In an effort to reserve appointments at a particular population, a special code is generated and provided to the clinic organizer, and people who are given the code can use it to make an appointment.

Those codes, however, are frequently being circulated online and make their way into the hands of people in far-away neighborhoods, who generally have better access to computers and the internet, and they snatch up the appointments and they drive across the county to get the shots.

"The code is like a way to bypass what really is at this point a failure of MyTurn," Ferrer said. "Ideally you have an appointment system that is set up that allows you to use that appointment system for what we would call a closed registration, so you could create a clinic, for example, and just have the people you want make appointments at that clinic, whatever site it is... Right now MyTurn doesn't allow anybody to do that, but we all are required to use MyTurn."

The access-code system was created as way to work around the problem, but Ferrer said, "Every time we create what we think is a way to reserve slots and appointments for the people in the communities that need to get vaccinated the most, the codes get stolen or they get distributed to other people, and we've got problems."

Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning in Sacramento, Newsom acknowledged the issue of "abuse in terms of people getting the codes" and said a fix is in the works, moving "away from group codes to individual codes."

He said the problem was obvious during his weekend visit to Ramona Gardens.

"It was pretty clear at that public housing site that not everyone was from that community, and we found out subsequently that that code, somehow a community-based organization shared that code and it was a group code," he said. "And we started seeing people come from outside that community. So we're working through those things. We're correcting those."

The problem comes at a time the county is trying to address vast disparities in vaccine distribution. According to figures released last week, Black residents represented just 5.2% of all people who had received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine as of mid-February, while 33.5% were white, 23.1% Latino/a and 19.1% Asian.

Only 24% of Black residents age 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 42.8% of white residents 65 and up.

Ferrer said the county will keep working to develop better ways to reach communities hardest hit by COVID-19 and the least able to obtain vaccines.

"Some of the efforts have really paid off -- the mobile sites, the popup sites not requiring pre-registration, taking it right into the neighborhoods, working with the faith community to make sure that we're actually setting up sites people can get to," she said. "... We just have to not lose sight of the fact that we have an obligation to fix this and fix this quickly."

The county on Tuesday reported another 157 COVID-19 deaths, pushing the county over the 20,000 mark in total fatalities, with the death toll reaching 20,057 deaths. Long Beach health officials subsequently reported 10 more deaths, while Pasadena added two more, pushing the countywide total to 20,069.

The county also reported another 2,091 new cases, while Long Beach announced 96 and Pasadena 22, pushing the cumulative total from throughout the pandemic to 1,183,496.

Case numbers, infection rates and hospitalizations continue to tumble from the highs seen during the winter surge. Ferrer noted Monday the current seven-day average of daily new cases has dropped to about 1,600, from an early January peak of more than 15,000 per day.

The county's COVID transmission rate -- or the average number of people a COVID patient infects with the virus -- dropped to 0.76, down from 0.81 a week ago. The county currently estimates that one in every 730 residents, excluding those who are in quarantine or isolation, are infected with the virus and capable of spreading it. That's an improvement from last week's estimate of one in every 460.

According to state figures, there were 2,064 people hospitalized in the county due to COVID as of Tuesday, with 619 in intensive care. That's a roughly 75% drop from the more than 8,000 hospitalizations reported in early January.

State figures released Tuesday showed that the county's average daily rate of new COVID-19 infections had dropped to 12.3 per 100,000 residents -- down from 20 per 100,000 a week ago. The county remains in the restrictive "purple" tier of the state's economic-reopening roadmap, but it will be able to advance to the less restrictive "red" tier if the new case rate drops to seven per 100,000.

Ferrer warned Monday, however, that conditions could still worsen again, adding that this is the week the county could start seeing a spike in cases from Super Bowl Sunday and the Presidents Day weekend, if people ignored warnings against gatherings.

"We hope that persons chose to celebrate the Super Bowl and the Presidents Day weekend safely, with members of their own household," she said.

"We don't want to lose any ground in slowing the spread of the virus, especially as we now have some children and school staff returning to our classrooms."

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