There are 67,000 veterans enrolled in the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. The highest concentration of senior veterans in the system live here in Monterey County. Yet, despite the fact the VA is now administering Covid-19 vaccines to enrollees age 70 and up, veterans from Monterey County have been forced to drive up to Palo Alto, Menlo Park or Livermore to get them.
"That poses some issues for us because some of our veterans especially in older categories or high-risk areas have travel limitations. Maybe they don't have a vehicle or they don't drive, or they don't want to risk more than they have to," Jason Cameron, Monterey County veterans service officer, said at a county press briefing on Wednesday.
It's a challenge but a collective effort by county officials, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel, and VA officials has been going on to find a solution and bring Covid-19 vaccines to the Major General William H. Gourley VA-DoD Outpatient Clinic in Marina.
"We've been working on that diligently within the last week," Cameron said. "Whatever the hurdles are we will break them down and make whatever needs to happen, happen."
They succeeded in breaking them down. Last night it was announced by the Monterey County Military and Veterans Affairs Office that 600 doses of the Moderna vaccine will be made available to veterans age 75 and older on Feb. 13, at the Marina clinic.
Appointments should be scheduled by phone by calling the VA Palo Alto at (650) 496-2535 Monday through Friday between 8AM and 6PM.
Second dose vaccines will be available 28 days later to those that receive the first dose on Feb. 13. The VA's Covid-19 vaccine website is regularly updated with new information: paloalto.va.gov/services/covid-19-vaccines.asp.
One of the original stumbling blocks to the Marina clinic receiving doses is there is no specialized freezer for storing the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine—currently being used by the VA systemwide—at the Marina clinic, Cameron said Wednesday, although he called that hurdle a minor one. A freezer could be easily procured from the VA or even with help from private donations.
The biggest challenge is that the Pfizer vaccine comes in vial bundles representing hundreds of vaccine doses. Cameron said the clinic would have to demonstrate that it can vaccinate a large number of people in a limited amount of time before the doses expire.
Since the Moderna vaccine comes in smaller batches, Cameron's office, with the support of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and Panetta's office, were lobbying to bring that vaccine to the VA system and more specifically to the Marina clinic.
Besides ensuring that local veterans can have easier access to the Covid-19 vaccine, bringing in vaccines to the veterans clinic has an additional benefit.
"The more that we can utilize the federal solution for vaccines to our county population, i.e., veterans using the VA system for their vaccines, that frees up county vaccines as well for other residents," Cameron said.
On Thursday, Feb. 4, Panetta sent a letter to Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control requesting them to expand vaccine access to VA clinics outside of major population centers, like Marina's.
"Although I'm grateful that the VA provides the vaccine, the significant travel that our veterans must endure on multiple occasions to get the shots makes it difficult to access and at times inaccessible," Panetta said.
He asked that the vaccines be "equitably administered" to all veterans by allocating doses to clinics like Marina. He estimated that more than 50 percent of the veterans in the county are over age 75.
For those veterans who need to get to the VA hospital in Palo Alto, Cameron said there are multiple options for van and bus rides through various agencies and groups. His office is a hub for information to veterans seeking rides and other vaccine help by calling 831-647-7613. The website is mvao.org.
Cameron advised veterans enrolled in the VA system to make sure their contact information is up to date, so they may be contacted about making vaccination appointments. He also encouraged them to be proactive and call the VA in Palo Alto directly.
He also recommended veterans who are not enrolled or do not receive care through the VA to contact his office to explore options and eligibility for access to the Palo Alto VA Health Care System.