County authorities are investigating the San Benito Health Foundation for allegedly allowing some patients to skip the line in administering Covid-19 vaccinations outside the state-prescribed priority system.
But the Hollister nonprofit said in a statement that the accusations amount to a “vicious and negative public media campaign” by the San Benito County Public Health Department and Supervisor Mark Medina. The community health clinic’s CEO further accused county officials initiating the investigation of “discriminating” against farmworkers and other vulnerable residents who received Covid-19 vaccines from the foundation.
County Public Health Services revealed the investigation in a Jan. 29 press release. San Benito Health Foundation allegedly failed to follow state guidelines that establish which patients should be among the first to receive the Covid-19 vaccination, according to county officials.
The county’s Public Health Services reported the allegations earlier in January to the California Department of Public Health. The local department learned of the allegations on Jan. 22.
San Benito County and the state of California are currently in Phase 1B, Tier One of the state’s Covid-19 vaccination plan, which establishes which patients, residents and employment sectors are next in line to receive vaccines. Phase 1A allowed healthcare workers and long-term care residents to receive the first shipments of vaccines. Phase 1B is divided into two tiers; the current tier is open to individuals 65 and older, as well as frontline workers at risk of exposure in the education and childcare, emergency services and food and agriculture industries, according to the California vaccination plan website.
However, current priorities are more restrictive when it comes to older residents, as the state and county are prioritizing residents age 75 and older for the Covid-19 vaccine, San Benito County Public Information Officer David Westrick said.
County investigators do not currently know how many San Benito Health Foundation patients may have received the vaccine outside their phase, tier or priority or prescribed administration, according to county staff. The county also has not said what residents or groups of patients received vaccinations out of order from San Benito Health Foundation.
“It’s part of the investigation,” Westrick said. “They’re going to look at that to see what the deviation allegation is.”
The county added in a statement, “Each provider is required to follow the vaccine guidance issued by the CDPH based on the prioritization and equity within the phases and tiers. San Benito County takes this allegation very seriously and it is currently investigating.”
San Benito Health Foundation CEO Rosa Vivian Fernandez said the nonprofit has vaccinated nearly 800 patients—many of whom are younger than 75 but within frontline employment sectors established in the vaccination plan. She said some elderly residents and home healthcare professionals on the foundation’s patient list that qualified for the Covid-19 vaccine as of late January either declined to receive the vaccination or did not reply to offers to be vaccinated. Some had already been vaccinated, Fernandez added.
Thus, the foundation “moved on” to the next step in Phase 1B, Tier One by vaccinating farmworkers and other vulnerable members of the community, Fernandez said.
“According to the governor’s office, we were not (allowed) to keep any vaccines,” Fernandez said, explaining the pressure the foundation was under to administer Covid-19 vaccine doses before they expired.
Fernandez claimed the county’s accusations are the result of discrimination because the San Benito Health Foundation’s patients are largely farmworkers and other “vulnerable” residents including the Latino community. Farmworkers are in line to receive the Covid-19 vaccine under the current tier.
“Our staff worked closely with our community partners to successfully vaccinate 789 people in the first three weeks of January during our vaccination distribution. This represents 30 percent of total vaccinations by all providers in San Benito County since November 2020,” reads a press release from the foundation. “As trained health professionals, we followed all protocols required for the safe administration of the vaccines. All vaccinations per statewide mandate were recorded in the California State Immunization Registry and administered to eligible community members. We are confident with the transparency that we’ve maintained will vindicate us as we continue our efforts to keep our community safe.”
The foundation, in a press release, accused the county’s public health department and Supervisor Mark Medina of “a vicious and negative public media campaign” against the nonprofit, which is located on Felice Drive. Medina has “falsely (accused) the organization of inappropriate vaccine distribution during the first three weeks of January,” the press release says.
Medina dismissed the claim that he made false allegations, and said the county’s investigation will reveal if, and how the health foundation violated the state vaccine plan.
“Did it happen? Did they vaccinate people out of tier? If they did, there was no smear campaign,” Medina said. “We’re just trying to make sure these vaccines are administered in an equitable manner by the tier system. That’s what we need to be sure happens.”
He added that if the foundation or any vaccine provider runs out of patients, ending up with excess Covid-19 vaccination doses, they should contact local public health officials “prior to going off tier.”
The state’s tier system is in place due to limited quantities of the Covid-19 vaccine. In San Benito County, seven public and private healthcare providers—including the public health department and San Benito Health Foundation—are authorized to administer Covid-19 vaccinations, Westrick said.
The county likely will release more Covid-19 vaccines to the health foundation, despite the ongoing investigation, because they have patients who need a second dose, Westrick added.
Fernandez accused the county of mismanaging its share of Covid-19 vaccines. She said county public health allowed hundreds of vaccine doses to sit in storage in December, “while we exploded with positive cases and deaths.”
Of the 789 residents vaccinated by San Benito Health Foundation staff and volunteers, 188 were farmworkers; 119 were between the ages of 65 to 75; and 60 were older than 75, Fernandez said. The “grand portion” of Covid-19 vaccines administered by the foundation, or 243 doses, were for home health providers throughout the community.