February Editorial: A Shot in the Dark

Written By: Tawny Tesconi, Executive Director
Published: February 5, 2021

The excitement and giddiness many of us are feeling awaiting our turn to get the COVID vaccination is likened to a child on Christmas Eve forcing themselves to stay awake to hear Santa coming down the chimney. In both situations, the adult and the child believe there is a gift waiting for them soon. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” but, Virginia, I am starting to disbelieve that fairy dust has been sprinkled on the holy grail we see as the COVID vaccination program.

After working in government for almost 30 years, I can attest that public agencies are cautious toward change and are the epitome of risk avoiders. Critics and board watchers like myself, plus the abundance of liability and responsibility they accept for doing public good, has caused the wheels of government to churn at a snail’s pace.  And, sometimes, those wheels turn backward.

All levels of government overanalyze and overthink processes and solutions. As a person who identifies with the term “if you don’t try, you will never know,” there were many times during my stint as a public employee that I wanted to hit my head against the wall because of the government process. I get it, though. Department heads and their well-meaning staff have to balance the interests of elected officials who sometimes are not subject matter experts on a project while managing the activists and advocates who are monotropic in their interest. 

A great example was a 5-year study done in the ’80s by the California fair industry to determine which computer mainframes fairs should invest in. By the time the decision was made and the purchase process finished, PCs were already hitting the market, but we stuck with the plan and installed those mainframes, only to switch to PCs a few years later.

I am afraid the vaccination program rollout is plagued (pun intended) with the constipated approach to process development.  Public sentiment has rapidly gone from praise for getting vaccines approved so quickly to criticism for the slow pace of inoculation. As more and more naysayers point fingers at the government, the government points a finger at the next level down in the government hierarchy. “They developed the tiers,” “the federal government did not provide any funding to figure out the vaccination process,” “we left it to local government to customize the process to their community,” and the list goes on.

Why is the vaccination program failing? Because it has been overthought, over compromised, underfunded, and assigned to government agencies that by nature do not accept any risk and are methodical in process. Also, these folks heroically have spent the last ten months trying to save lives. Sure, the vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel, but they don’t have time to look into the tunnel. We have all been there.

It’s easy to look back, and maybe I should have asked the question in September, but why wasn’t the vaccination program put on the front burner of a public agency other than the health department? If their own teams were too busy (I find that hard to believe), why didn’t government do a Hail Mary pass to private enterprise to develop a detailed vaccination plan, start onboarding vaccinators and create a simple, easy to follow communication model to keep the community informed? Instead, exhausted health department personnel all over the country have suddenly been saddled with this project to develop a vaccination process during the most challenging time of this pandemic. Let the health officials manage the sick and the science but let others who have experience with mass public events and processes figure out how to reach the end game.

The other day I was lamenting about the vaccination process with a member who is a caterer and restaurateur. (Or at least he used to be before the shutdown). As two folks who both have decades in the event business, we jokingly suggested that they should have had event producers, fair managers, or wedding planners figure out the process. With our experience, there is an understanding that you never hit the bullseye, but you are going to come close enough that the masses never see the imperfections.  I aspire that we would have done a better job at communicating and executing the plan than we are seeing today, and many effective people have shuttered their businesses who could have been quickly rallied to help.

As of this writing, our County is still working through Phase 1A, a phase that has easily identifiable and accessible people in the queue. Hospital personnel, skilled living facility residents and staffers, people 75 years and older – many of these patients don’t even need to leave their workplace to get vaccinated. However, it seems like this rollout is clunky and running into obstacles. Then, the Governor announces they are adding 65 – 74-year-old residents sort of into this phase, but then took a backstep and put them into Tier 1B. Good intentions, but not enough vaccines. The level of frustration continues to mount. 

Because of this floundering vaccination process and the criticism, I am fearful for our industry.  Health officials are under the gun to get the vaccines in hand into arms, and they are going to migrate their effort to the low hanging fruit. Vaccinating workers in the agriculture industry is riddled with challenges and is complex.  It is an extremely vulnerable population working for thousands of small businesses, and there is no one size fits all. Not all our workers have insurance providers, ID badges, transportation to vaccination sites, internet connections, or a communication link to get updated vaccination program information.

Further, when you dive into the details of the various business sectors recognized as Tier 1B food and agriculture workers, it is an onerous list of workers. I would guess for our County, it could easily represent over 100,000 people. It will be vital to determine an effective priority process for the limited vaccines dedicated to Tier 1B and to ensure that residents currently working in our business sector are first.  We often hear that there are unemployed farmworkers in our County, yet I have reports from our members that they have positions on their farms or in their processing facilities that they cannot fill. Getting unemployed residents vaccinations is important, but for food security, there has to be a concerted effort to confirm a patient is actively working in food production, processing, or transportation.

Our priority at Sonoma County Farm Bureau is to get all levels of workers on our local farms, ag processors and support businesses vaccinated immediately. We will continue to work with our County health officials, County Supervisors, and third-party vaccinators to develop an agile vaccination program customized to our members’ needs. 

My faith in the system is in question, but I believe that good people with good intent working on this make me hopeful, but I still believe in Mr. Claus and Peter Rabbit.

 

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