A major Northern California health provider was scrambling Thursday to find enough COVID-19 vaccine to provide second doses for 40,000 people whose appointments were canceled and another 50,000 whose slots were in jeopardy.
Residents who went online to check the status of their scheduled appointments with Sutter Health said they discovered the cancellations on Wednesday. Some tried furiously and futilely to find another provider.
“The state was very clear in directing us that we must NOT hold any doses back for second doses, and we followed those instructions as we quickly stood up mass vaccination sites and got first dose shots in arms,” Sutter spokeswoman Amy Thoma Tan said in an email.
“We had been reassured for weeks that if we administered the first dose, the state would guarantee that we would receive the second dose allocation, and we haven’t so far.”
The patients affected live in 22 counties, including the Bay Area. Sutter Health, a not-for-profit health system headquartered in Sacramento, operates about 24 acute care hospitals and more than 200 clinics in Northern California. The provider serves more than 3 million Californians.
Tan said Sutter expects to receive more supply from Blue Shield of California, which now oversees California’s vaccine program, next week, though not enough for all 90,000 second-dose appointments.
Angeline Sheets, Sutter’s director of media relations, said in an interview that all appointments for first doses through March 9 also had to be canceled.
“As a result of continued allocation issues, we are in the process of notifying patients with second dose appointments scheduled through March 9 to let them know that their current appointment needs to be canceled due to insufficient supply,” she said.
Patients will be called in seven to 10 days to reschedule,” Sheets said.
Patricia Henle, 66, a lawyer who lives in Marin County, said she learned after going online Wednesday that appointments for the second shot of the Pfizer vaccine had been canceled for her and her husband, who is 74 and suffers from cancer and diabetes. They were scheduled to receive their second doses in Sacramento on Saturday.
She said the couple received no email from Sutter, and she called the Sutter vaccine site in Sacramento to confirm that their appointments were canceled. She said she was told that it could take several weeks to get the second shot from Sutter and that she should check with other providers.
She then spent six hours calling pharmacies and medical groups to no avail. One only had the Moderna vaccine. Two providers told her she could schedule only appointments for first doses of the Pfizer vaccine, she said.
“If I had told them it was going to be my first shot, they would have taken me, but I didn’t want to lie,” she said. “I am an attorney.” She said both the first and second doses of Pfizer are the same, and she could have received the second dose if she had not told the truth.
“It is mind boggling that I have to this,” Henle said. “I am trying my very, very best to do it honorably and honestly, and I feel like a fool for doing that if you want to know the truth.”
Sutter said it has received about 369,000 doses of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines from state and county allocations. During the last three to four weeks, the doses were either insufficient or didn’t arrive at all, according to Sutter.
“We have been urgently requesting from the state additional allocations, and we have been doing that by email and phone,” Sheets said. “We have been incredibly clear about our need.”
She said the shortage evolved before Blue Shield of California assumed control of the state’s vaccine distribution. The giant insurer has a contract with the state to create an algorithm for vaccine distribution, focusing both on speed of delivery and equity.
President Biden has said the U.S. will have enough vaccines for every adult by the end of May.