Vaccine Pilgrims
Amy Lighter, left, and Alan Joss traveled to Hanford, Calif. — more than three hours each way — to get their vaccines. They are not alone. Many people are traveling great distances for the chance to live more safely. Photo courtesy Alan Joss

Montara resident Alan Joss and his former co-worker Amy Lighter drove a combined 952 miles to get their COVID-19 vaccines. After a cumulative 10.5 hours in the car together on their way to and from appointments, they got their second Pfizer doses on Sunday at a CVS in Hanford, Calif., a small town in Kings County.

After scouring county, state and private vaccine sites for an appointment anywhere within the Bay Area and coming up short, driving hundreds of miles on two Sundays was their best option.

“You’ve got to kind of figure it out on your own,” Joss said. “There is no centralized system.”

Thursday, April 15, is looming. That is the date when anyone over 16 will be eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine across the state. Consequently, Coastside residents are searching far and wide for appointments ahead of the rush.

In San Mateo County, the system is not likely to improve anytime soon. In contrast to earlier promises from the state that supply into Bay Area counties would increase, the county actually received fewer doses this week than normal, just 11,450 doses. County Health Public Information Officer Preston Merchant said the significant reduction in doses is consistent with the across-the-board cut in vaccine supply affecting the entire state after Johnson & Johnson was forced to throw away 15 million of its doses due to a manufacturing error.

Then on Tuesday, another 500 doses were taken out of circulation after the county temporarily paused the use of its Johnson & Johnson vaccine supply in line with state and federal guidance. That came in response to reports of blood clots in six women that could be related to the vaccine. Merchant said the county will switch Johnson & Johnson appointments to Moderna or Pfizer doses during the pause, but will still have enough shots to run second dose sites.

According to Merchant, the county will still have enough shots to run second dose sites, but may have to scale back its first-dose clinic schedule. He remains hopeful, especially after surpassing 50 percent of county residents vaccinated.

“It’s a remarkable achievement,” Merchant said.

Low supply has driven locals like Joss out of the Bay Area entirely to find appointments. He qualified on March 15 due to an underlying health condition that makes him more at-risk if he were to catch the virus, but finding an appointment nearby proved nearly impossible. Joss signed up for the county’s notification system, the state’s My Turn website and through his health care at Kaiser Permanente. He then tried the websites of nearby pharmacies like Rite Aid and CVS, but found nothing. He even tried signing up as a volunteer.

Then, after Lighter reached out about road-tripping to Hanford where appointments were abundant and there were no residency requirements, he decided to join her.

For Joss, the long drive was worth it. But his experience underlined how a decentralized system can soon become confusing to the point where it’s unusable.

“It just makes you wonder how they thought about rolling this out,” Joss said. “Why are there so many appointments in Kings County and so few here? What is causing that backlog?”

The answer is likely a combination of factors. Residents of more rural areas may be more hesitant to get the vaccine, or may face greater barriers to accessing it at traditional clinic sites like pharmacies. Another factor could be the state’s decision to send 40 percent of its vaccine supply to ZIP codes with the most at-risk residents, six of which are in Kings County.

Joss knows he’s lucky that he has a car and a friend to make the 3½-hour drive together. He hopes it means one fewer of his neighbors is battling for limited local spots.

“Right now, the floodgates are starting to open,” Joss said.

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