Watch CBS News

CBS13 Investigates: Where Are California's Unused COVID-19 Vaccine Doses?

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Counties say they're out of vaccines, and vaccination clinics are being canceled. Meanwhile, the state's Vaccine Dashboard showed more than 2.1 million unused vaccine doses as of Friday and the state can't - or won't - reveal where they are.

CBS13 has been working for weeks to track down the millions of unused vaccine doses in California. We've made dozens of calls and emails to every local county, health system and state agency involved in vaccine distribution. We even questioned the state's surgeon general.

"Will we ever know where the doses are being allotted?" we asked.

"That's a great question," said Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. "Our commitment is to safety, equity and transparency."

But the state's current vaccine tracking system isn't exactly transparent. In fact, the state may not even know where all the doses have been administered and who has unused vaccines on any given day.

Let's break it down.

The Vaccine Distribution Pipeline

There are 58 counties and 9 multi-county entities, or MCEs (think Kaiser, Sutter, State Department of Corrections), in addition to individual health care facilities.

They all request vaccines through the CalVax portal, which was initially designed for flu vaccines. Several counties told CBS13 the system has been riddled with problems amid the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

The state decides who gets the vaccines and how many. Then, manufacturers send the allotted vaccine doses directly to the counties and MCEs.

Counties then distribute them to local health care facilities.

"CDPH notifies counties of their allocation on Tuesday nights," Sacramento County Public Health Explained. "We do not know how many doses we will receive until then, and that number changes every week. It usually shows up in our allocating system, CalVax, sometime on Wednesday. Once ordered, these doses arrive the following week."

Complicating distribution, allocations include a mixture of both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines and both first and second doses. They must be distributed to sites based on storage capabilities (i.e. Pfizer vaccines require specialized ultra-cold storage).

Attempting to Track Shots Given - Complicated by MCEs

Tracking how many doses have been distributed to each entity on any given day is difficult due to reporting and transportation delays. However, figuring out how many have been used - and where - is currently next to impossible.

Most county public health departments say they've used up most of their allotted doses. While some counties do get information from the health care facilities they send shots to, few get any information from the multi-county health systems (MCEs) that have facilities in their areas.

They all report directly to the state, but the state hasn't made that information public.

Adding to the confusion, CBS13 has learned shots given by multi-county entities are often counted for the county where the hospital system is headquartered - not the county where people actually got the shots.

Earlier this week, California's Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly alluded to the issue when the state couldn't confirm the exact number of shots given after reporting they'd reached their million-vaccine goal.

"[We're] working with them to make sure that we capture that data effectively and accurately," Ghaly said.

Health Systems Won't - Or Can't - Reveal Data

CBS13 has been attempting to independently track the doses received and shots given, but health systems - like Kaiser, Sutter and Dignity Health - refuse to provide numbers. Instead, they point us to CDPH, which also refuses to share the data.

UC Health and the California Department of State Hospitals (DSH) were the only multi-county entities that were willing to provide detailed vaccine data.

CBS13 also requested vaccine data from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), which is listed by the state as an MCE.

We received a response from an unnamed person at the email address "CDCR" stating, "That information is not currently publicly available."

The email directed us to submit an official public records request to California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS), adding, "requests for medical records are not considered public record." The state has 10 days to respond to a public records request.

UPDATE: After this story aired, a CDCR representative clarified that the quoted response above actually came from a CCHCS representative using the "CDCR Lifeline" email address, clarifying:

"CDCR referred questions and a request for public records to California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS), the agency which oversees health care delivery in California prisons and is responsible for staff and inmate vaccine distribution plans. CCHCS stated that medical records are not public but has 10 days to respond to the public records request." 

County Data is Inconsistent 

While counties have been more forthcoming, the vaccine data they provide has been inconsistent.

Some counties track vaccines by first and second doses administered and received, some by total doses and some by weekly doses. There does not appear to be any consistent mandated tracking protocols required statewide.

"Keep in mind, there's a reporting delay," Dr. Burke Harris said last week. "So  some of the shots that have been administered have not been reported back to us yet. Sometimes it takes a couple of days to have the full reporting. And then, also keep in mind that, those are first doses and second doses."

We asked how many of the unused doses are being reserved for second doses. She couldn't say and CDPH would not provide that information.

Does the public have a right to know? 

"Do you think the public has a right to know where those unused vaccines are sitting on ice right now?" we asked Dr. Burke Harris.

"The public absolutely has the right to know in terms of how much vaccine is coming into their community and how they can get access to the vaccine," she answered. "And and we're working to get that information."

However, more than a week later we're still waiting for that information.

On Friday, the state said a public dashboard with county-level vaccine information would be "coming soon."

NOTE: This story has been updated to include expanded responses from Sacramento County Public Health and CDCR that were provided after this story initially aired.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.