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State officials will allow pediatricians to bypass their cumbersome vaccine management system in a move intended to speed COVID-19 vaccinations for children, CalMatters has learned.
The decision comes as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to authorize vaccines for children ages 12 to 15 as early as next week, which would add 2.1 million kids to the number of Californians eligible.
The move is a tacit recognition of the problems that the massive, $50 million MyTurn system poses for doctors and smaller medical groups wanting to immunize their patients.
Sami Gallegos, press secretary for California's COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, told CalMatters that pediatricians and other doctors who treat children will not be forced to use MyTurn to obtain their patients' vaccines. But she added that the state health department has not yet determined how the doctors will receive the doses.
Until now, Blue Shield, which oversees vaccine distribution for California, has required most health providers to sign up, undergo training and request doses through MyTurn, which was billed a one-stop shop for Californians seeking vaccination appointments.
Developed at an unusual speed for a government website, MyTurn has been hampered by glitches and a design that frustrated Californians. Appointments booked on the site — an average of about 100,000 each day — recently accounted for only about 27% of the vaccinations given each day across the state, according to data from the California Department of Public Health.
Blue Shield has prioritized mass-vaccination sites and large health providers like Kaiser Permanente before allowing smaller clinics to receive doses — at least when vaccine doses were in short supply. That's because Blue Shield must hit ambitious vaccination targets in its contract with the state.
As a result, some physicians have faced delays when they try to sign up with MyTurn to receive doses for their patients.
"It's been frustrating to say the least," said Steve Escamilla, executive director of Tamalpais Pediatrics, which serves about 8,600 children in Marin County. "This has been even more difficult than applying for a PPP loan."
Escamilla told CalMatters that when he tried to enroll the clinic in MyTurn, Blue Shield responded it could take several weeks for his application to be processed.
When told that pediatricians would soon be allowed to skip MyTurn altogether, he was pleasantly surprised.
"To be able to bypass the bureaucracy would be a godsend." Escamilla said. "That's definitely a game changer for our ability to give the vaccine."
California has nearly 3,500 pediatricians, more than any other state.
Families who want to immunize their children ages 12 to 15 once they become eligible can check with their pediatrician or family doctor. They also can sign up for appointments on their county's COVID-19 website or the MyTurn site, myturn.ca.gov or call the state's COVID-19 hotline at 833-422-4255.
Getting COVID-19 vaccine doses into the hands of pediatricians and other primary care doctors is particularly important now that kids ages 12 to 15 will join the millions of Californians eligible to be immunized, said Anthony York, spokesman for the California Medical Association. Teens ages 16-17 currently can receive only the Pfizer vaccine.
About one-third of California doctors who administer childhood vaccines are enrolled in a separate online system that registers them to obtain non-COVID-19 vaccines, Gallegos said. But many doctors are not enrolled in that system, which creates a bureaucratic delay for them because they would have to join it before they could obtain COVID-19 vaccines.
That is a reason that the state is allowing physicians to bypass MyTurn if they already have submitted data to the California Immunization Registry and plan to only vaccinate children 12 to 17, Gallegos said.
She added that many pediatricians work for major health systems, such as Kaiser Permanente and Sutter Health, that already are signed up on MyTurn, so children will have access to vaccines through them.