Although only a fraction of residents aged 65 and over have received a COVID-19 vaccine and supplies of the medication remain woefully low, Los Angeles County will expand vaccinations to an array of essential workers in two to three weeks, including teachers, the public health director said Wednesday.

The move follows a call by the governor in late January for shots to be offered to workers in three categories: education/child care; food and agriculture; and emergency services and law enforcement.

In Los Angeles County, those categories represent roughly 1.3 million people, meaning that even after they become eligible for the shots, it will take weeks to get all of them fully vaccinated, which requires two doses spaced out by three to four weeks.

The expansion of the vaccine eligibility will occur even as the county continues administering shots to the currently eligible populations — health care workers, residents and staff of nursing and long-term care facilities and residents 65 and over. Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer noted that to date, only 20% of residents aged 65 and over have received at least one dose of the medication.

The county on average has been receiving only about 200,000 doses of the medication a week. With vaccine supply remaining that low and the field of eligible residents expanding, getting an appointment for a shot could become dramatically more difficult.

“We’re trying to follow along with what’s happening across the state,” Ferrer said. “… In some counties, smaller counties or smaller cities, they’ve been able already to start vaccinating in those sectors, and they also have not completed vaccinations for all of their folks who are 65 and older.

“At this point, we’d like to make significant inroads into getting people who are older vaccinated,” she said. “… Our hope is that over these next two weeks you’re going to see that number go way up in terms of the number of older people who are getting vaccinated. But also it’s an acknowledgement that we do have to get started with some of our essential workers. It’s gonna be really difficult to wait weeks and weeks and weeks until we complete an entire sector before we move on.”

Representatives from an array of sectors have been pressuring state and local officials to make the vaccines available, creating what Ferrer conceded was a difficult process of deciding who will come first. The issue of getting teachers vaccinated has become a major issue in recent days amid pushes by Gov. Gavin Newsom and some local officials to get students back in classrooms. But Los Angeles Unified teachers and the superintendent have said teachers and staff need to be vaccinated before that can happen, despite the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying otherwise.

Ferrer pointed out Wednesday that 1,700 schools opened last fall in the county with limited numbers of students, and another 300 are operating under a waiver program that allowed younger students to return to campuses, and “we saw very few outbreaks” of the virus, and those that did occur were small and easily contained.

Ferrer said the county is also taking steps to address disparities in the distribution of vaccines overall, with statistics released this week showing that of the more than 1 million doses administered so far, only 3.5% went to Black residents.

She said the county has opened 10 additional vaccination sites this week in East and South Los Angeles, and mobile vaccination teams are fanning out to housing developments and senior centers in hard-hit communities. Community health workers are also being dispatched to interact with residents, in some cases going door-to-door, to provide information about the vaccine and dispell any myths that may be preventing people from getting vaccinated.

The county reported another 141 deaths due to the coronavirus Wednesday, while Long Beach health officials announced 12 more fatalities, and Pasadena added seven, lifting the overall death toll to 18,519.

Another 3,434 cases were also reported by the county, along with 151 by Long Beach and 31 by Pasadena, raising the total number from throughout the pandemic to 1,155,491.

Deaths and cases have been trending downward in recent weeks as the county recovers from the winter surge in cases, as have hospitalizations. According to state figures, there were 3,772 people hospitalized due to COVID in Los Angeles County as of Wednesday, and 1,105 people in intensive care. That’s a dramatic drop from early January, when there were more than 8,000 people hospitalized.

Ferrer said the decline cases is hopeful, but she tempered the optimism.

“Our optimism around this decrease is cautious,” she said. “The number is still more than three times the average daily case rates we were reporting in September. And also, we’re at a time of the year when people may be more tempted to gather. It’s our hope that all residents are choosing to not get together with people from outside their household or to travel to celebrate the Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day or Presidents Day.”

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