Joyce Hanson was thrilled when she heard Gov. Gavin Newsom announce Jan. 13 that Californians age 65 and older would be eligible to get vaccinated against covid-19.
Infections and hospitalizations had been surging in California, and Hanson knew a simple trip to the grocery store put her at greater risk of getting sick and dying. Plus, she hadn’t seen her daughter in more than a year, so she immediately began making plans to visit her in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“I felt this huge weight lifted off my heart when the governor said me and my husband could get vaccinated,” said Hanson, 69, a San Bernardino resident and registered Democrat who voted for Newsom in 2018.
She jumped online to book an appointment, frantically searching San Bernardino city and county websites for openings. Next she called pharmacies all over Southern California, then hospitals and her local health department. No luck.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Hanson, who is among a growing number of Californians becoming disillusioned with Newsom — including some of his fellow Democrats — over California’s erratic vaccination rollout, which has been riddled with mixed messages, shifting priorities and poor communication.
“The messaging hasn’t been very clear,” she said. “If we’re not going to actually be able to get the vaccine until March or April, I can deal with that, but just be honest and tell us that it’s not realistic yet.”
Since October, Newsom has touted his administration’s readiness to vaccinate the state’s 40 million residents, while repeatedly assuring them that “hope is on the horizon.” He has vowed that California would lead the nation with a fair and efficient system of delivering vaccines.
Hope is on the horizon with a vaccination. We continue to accelerate our planning and preparedness for a safe and equitable vaccine distribution.Newsom on Dec. 7, 2020
Instead, the situation has devolved into chaos and confusion, as vulnerable older people, teachers and others in essential industries scramble to find a vaccine appointment — often without help or direction from state or local officials.
Newsom, who emerged as an early leader in the pandemic when he issued the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order, is desperately trying to turn the situation around — and political strategists say he must do so quickly because his political future depends on it. He is facing a Republican-driven effort to recall him from office, with supporters gaining momentum from the vaccine problems. Even some in his Democratic base are beginning to question his leadership.
“This is not going well. You just cannot have these kinds of disparities we’re seeing all over California. The governor has got to get control of this vaccination effort,” said Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Garry South, who ran the gubernatorial campaigns of former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, recalled by voters in 2003 and replaced by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“If the vaccination process is not carried out smoothly and efficiently, a lot of voters will blame him, regardless of whether it’s actually his fault or not,” South said. “People did not blame Gray Davis for starting the electricity crisis, but they did blame him for failing to solve the problem.”
Recall organizers have until March 17 to gather the roughly 1.5 million valid signatures needed to put the question before voters. As of Jan. 6, the California secretary of state’s office had received nearly 724,000 signatures.
“We’re in a mad dash to get enough,” said Orrin Heatlie, a retired Yolo County Sheriff’s Department sergeant, who is leading the recall campaign. “The dark path to getting vaccinated is not why we started this, but the governor’s mishandling of it is causing real harm and has only furthered our momentum.”
Newsom campaign spokesperson Dan Newman dismissed the recall effort as “expected background noise” and argued that Newsom is focused on ending the pandemic. “His obsessive and relentless focus is on vaccinations, and economic relief and recovery.”
Newsom has enjoyed relatively high ratings, with 58% of Californians approving of his job performance, according to the latest job approval poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. That poll was conducted in October, before any covid vaccines had been cleared for use.
While the governor cannot control the supply of vaccine flowing to California — a major limiting factor in the state’s ability to distribute doses — he is leading the statewide vaccination strategy that was submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in October.
“We have long been in the vaccination business,” Newsom boasted in a news conference on Oct. 19, saying California’s experience with mass vaccination campaigns has prepared it to undertake one now, complete with public service announcements, cutting-edge technology and state support for local efforts. “Just consider — 19 million annual flu shots typically distributed here in the state of California.”
Newsom’s vaccine strategy mirrors his approach to the pandemic so far: It hands primary responsibility for administering the vaccine to the state’s 58 counties, which have different plans for who gets the shot first, how they will be notified when it’s their turn and where they will be vaccinated.
We started this ‘Vaccinate All 58’ campaign recognizing that all Californians need to be included in this vaccination process and that we can’t leave folks behind.Newsom on Dec. 15, 2020
Chronically underfunded county health departments — which are drowning under other pandemic-related duties, such as covid testing, contact tracing and enforcing local restrictions on businesses — have struggled to keep up with the additional responsibilities. In many cases, they have failed to communicate effectively with the public or provide vaccines quickly and efficiently.
Dr. Phuong Luu, the health officer for Yuba and Sutter counties in rural Northern California, said overworked public health workers are spending an immense amount of time fielding phone calls from people demanding shots. “It’s an extreme amount of pressure,” she said. “People are angry and they’re calling saying, ‘No, the governor said that I’m eligible. Why aren’t you accommodating me?’”
In the Bay Area’s suburban Contra Costa County, health officer Dr. Chris Farnitano said the county cannot accommodate everyone 65 and older. It is focusing on people 75 and up, and supplies are dwindling so quickly that officials can’t promise a timely second dose.
California is consistently at the bottom nationally in percentage of shots administered, with about half of doses used as of Thursday, compared with 81.6% in West Virginia and 80.8% in North Dakota, according to an analysis of state and federal vaccine data. Texas, the state closest to California in population, has administered 60% of its shots.
Overall, 5.8% of Californians have received their first dose, compared with 6.8% of people nationally.
“States that rely heavily on counties have faced bigger challenges,” said Larry Levitt, executive vice president for health policy at KFF. “The more layers that this implementation has to pass through, the more challenging it seems to get.” (KHN, which produces California Healthline, is an editorially independent program of KFF.)
A bipartisan group of 47 state legislators sent Newsom a letter this month blasting the vaccination chaos. “We are all aware of the limited number of vaccines that have been made available to the states, but we believe that we need to plan for a more effective and efficient rollout,” they wrote.
Newsom has acknowledged that he must remedy the situation, pledging on Jan. 6 to administer 1 million additional vaccines in 10 days. He fell short on that promise but characterized the effort as a success, with 900,000 additional vaccinations administered by Jan. 15. This week, he released a plan to speed and centralize the vaccination distribution process by mid-February, and he unveiled a website called My Turn, which eventually will inform Californians when they are eligible and allow them to make appointments.
Widespread frustration is not unique to California. Nearly 60% of adults 65 and older in the U.S. say they don’t know when or where they will get vaccinated, and nearly three-quarters of Americans say they’re either frustrated with the status of vaccinations or flat-out angry, according to a new KFF poll.
But in California, that anger presents political difficulty for Newsom.
“He’s got more crises on his plate than any previous governor,” former governor Davis told California Healthline. “At the moment, people in California are upset, so accelerating the administration of those vaccines should be the first, and most important, thing that every public elected official does every day.”
Newsom may appear safe from a Republican-led effort in a state that votes overwhelmingly Democratic, but unlike aspects of the pandemic that have disproportionately hurt small-business owners or Black and Latino communities, the vaccination issue touches nearly all Californians.
“Newsom’s handling of the crisis may not be what qualifies it for the ballot,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political communication at the University of Southern California and the University of California-Berkeley. “But if the recall does qualify, how the vaccination process was handled is going to be the primary basis on which voters make their decision on whether to keep him in office or not.”
Some voters say Newsom’s vaccination rollout shows it’s time for new political blood.
“You hear him on the news saying we’re doing better and we see light at the end of the tunnel, but this isn’t going well,” said Scott Hunyadi, 31, of San Dimas, who voted for Newsom in 2018. “I’d never vote for a Republican, but given the opportunity, I’d certainly vote to recall Newsom and install a better Democratic candidate if one was on the ballot.”
Hanson, who still hasn’t found an appointment, places most of the blame on former President Donald Trump. But she said Newsom has acted as a “cheerleader” for his administration rather than being honest about his missteps.
“I know he’s trying, but honestly, at this point, I’m so soured,” she said. “There’s no guarantee that anyone could do a better job, but I’d certainly look at a Democratic challenger if there was one.”
This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.