Vaccine shortage closes Petco superstation as another clinic opens at Del Mar Fairgrounds

Scripps Health officially opened their new vaccination site Friday at Del Mar Fairgrounds.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

State sets new guidelines for people 16-64 with certain medical conditions


The county’s newest vaccination superstation opened Friday morning, Feb. 12, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds for a test run of about 288 patients, the same day a missed shipment of the Moderna vaccine heightened worries countywide about shortened supplies.

Also Friday, Feb. 12, the state announced that beginning March 15 vaccinations will be available to a larger group of people including those 64 and younger with cancer, obesity and other underlying conditions.

Vaccinations will slow for now in San Diego County because of the limited supply, and in some cases appointments will have to be rescheduled. The county’s largest site, the UC San Diego Health Petco Super Station, will deliver no vaccinations Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, and appointments there will be automatically rescheduled through UCSD’s MyChart, officials said.

Second doses will remain the priority at all sites. The South County and East County superstations have sufficient supplies to get through Monday, and the North County superstation in San Marcos has sufficient supply to meet second-dose appointments and a limited supply of first doses.

Nathan Fletcher, chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, said Friday afternoon, Feb. 12, that the pause, though unwanted, is not entirely unexpected.

“We’re confronting a situation with a very erratic and unstable supply chain, and we knew that situations like this, though we try to prevent them, are bound to happen,” Fletcher said.

Even when the current situation with Moderna resolves itself, he noted, the need for second doses by those who have already received their first doses is likely to produce a situation where few first-dose appointments are available.

“There is a very real probability, in the coming weeks, given the current supply we’re receiving, that there will be a period of time where there will be very few first-dose appointments available,” Fletcher said.

California officials said Friday, Feb.12, that people between the ages of 16 and 64 who are disabled or at high risk for morbidity and mortality from COVID-19 will be eligible to be vaccinated beginning next month.

The move comes after weeks of debate over who will get to the front of the line for precious doses, which remain in short supply. Officials estimate the move will make 4 million to 6 million more people eligible for the vaccine, bringing the total number of Californians eligible to between 17 million and 20 million, or about half the state.

Ultimately it will be up to local providers to decide who gets the vaccine immediately, with medical workers, first responders, people 65 and older, teachers and essential workers all vying for shots.

All the vaccinations were delivered as planned in about one hour on opening day Friday, Feb. 12, at the Del Mar Fairgrounds superstation run by Scripps Health using the Pfizer vaccine.

Another 588 drive-thru patients are scheduled there on Saturday, Feb. 13, and again on Sunday, Feb. 14. Scripps officials said they hope to gradually ramp up over the next few weeks to inoculate as many as 5,000 people a day at the fairgrounds if enough of the vaccine is available.

“This has been most efficient, I must say,” said Teresa McKethan, 66, a La Jolla resident who drove through in her Toyota SUV. “There have been no complications whatsoever.”

She had tried repeatedly to get an appointment at the Petco Park site, without success. When she saw Thursday, Feb. 11, that appointments were available at the fairgrounds, she got online and scheduled both her Friday, Feb. 12, visit and the follow-up second dose.

“People are very happy,” said Michelle Meyer, a registered nurse and 22-year Scripps employee. The fairgrounds site is the third vaccination station she’s helped set up.

“I do get a lot of people who cry ... a lot of thank you for just being here,” she said. Some have told her it’s their first time outside their home since the pandemic began, and for them it’s a sign that things might be returning to normal.

The vaccinations are administered inside the Wyland Center, a cavernous building used for exhibits during the San Diego County Fair.

Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder inoculates Christian Dollahon, 66, from Oceanside with the Pfizer vaccine on Friday
Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder inoculates Christian Dollahon, 66, from Oceanside with the Pfizer vaccine on Friday at the new drive-thru site at Del Mar Fairgrounds.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Cars drive into the building and are divided into nine separate lanes, each with three stations administering shots. A nurse asks a few questions and checks for allergies or medical conditions. The whole process takes about five minutes.

Afterward each vehicle gets a timer in a plastic bag placed on the hood, and then the driver is instructed to drive outside to the parking lot and wait there. The timer goes off in 15 minutes and, unless there’s a medical reaction, a volunteer takes the timer and the driver is free to leave.

Continued operations depend on a weekly resupply of the vaccine, which is not a sure thing, said Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps.

“We are blessed we have enough right now for the next few days,” Van Gorder said.

San Diego County gets a fresh supply every Tuesday, he said, but the vaccination stations don’t know from week to week how much of the vaccine will be available. Also, the state requires the sites to use all the vaccine they receive and not save it for a second dose.

In recent weeks the supply of the vaccine has been tighter, and Friday, Feb. 12, Scripps had to return some of its supply to the county, he said.

“Each one of these vials is liquid gold,” he said. “It’s the light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of people.”

The fairgrounds has space to spare because of the pandemic, which has forced the cancellation of all large events including the San Diego County Fair over the past year.

The possibility of opening a vaccination center at the fairgrounds came up in a Jan. 20 meeting with San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, said fairgrounds interim CEO Carlene Moore.

“It’s been moving very quickly ever since,” Moore said. “We are really proud to be partners” with the county and Scripps.

Two weeks ago, the Wyland Center was being used to store donations for the nonprofit Goodwill Industries, she said. Those items were moved to another building on the fairgrounds.

The fairgrounds has long been used for occasional emergency services, and the easy access to Interstate 5 is an advantage to residents across the county.

“That is what makes this facility important to the community,” Moore said.

Several times over the years it’s provided emergency shelter for people and livestock during wildfires, and last April it hosted one of the county’s largest food distribution events for families affected by the pandemic.

On Friday, Feb. 12, the county reported 817 new COVID-19 cases, 179 hospitalizations and 24 deaths. It’s the fourth time in the past seven days that case numbers have dipped below the 1,000 mark. So far, there have been no signs of a post-Super Bowl uptick in cases; it typically takes 4-5 days for an infected person to show symptoms. Another encouraging sign: The total number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county has gradually decreased each day over the past 28 days, though a widespread vaccination effort will be key to ensuring that these numbers stay down for good.

— Phil Diehl is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune

Staff writers Paul Sisson and Jonathan Wosen contributed to this story.