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Vaccinators struggle with tight supplies

By Jeff Fox jeff.fox@examiner.net

The head of Truman Medical Centers, which has been one of the metro area’s biggest pipelines for COVID-19 vaccinations, says vaccine supplies are tight and could stay that way for a few more weeks.

“One of the biggest constraints that we have right now is simply the availability of vaccine, as you know. … It’s pretty well documented,” Charlie Shields, TMC’s president and CEO, told Jackson County legislators Monday.

So far, according to Jackson County Health Department Director Bridgette Shaffer, TMC and the Health Department together have delivered almost half of the 46,318 doses of vaccine that, as of Monday, the state’s dashboard said had been given in the county. Of those, roughly 16,000 have been at TMC and 7,500 at the Health Department.

Both said they are ready to ramp up shots when vaccines are available. 

They addressed a wide range of concerns:

• If I’ve had my first shot, will I be able to get the second one, whether through the Health Department or TMC? 

“Absolutely,” Shields said. “If they got their first vaccine, they are already scheduled to get their second vaccine, and we have the vaccine held back for them.”

• If I meet the criteria and want a shot, what do I do? 

Call TMC at 404-CARES, where a nurse will answer questions and, if you’re eligible, schedule an appointment. “I would not encourage anybody to just show up to get their vaccine,” Shields said.

• When will teachers get shots?

Soon, Shields suggested. 

“We have been contacted by most of the school districts in the KC metro and Jackson County,” he said, “and have arrangements that once we get the OK (from the state) we’ll actually go out to the school districts and provide immunizations on their sites. We can do a large number of school personnel very, very quickly. So we’re ready to do that as soon as we get the OK and get the vaccine.”

But for now vaccine supplies run out quickly, and Shields urged patience.

“So I think as we look out, you know, post-February into March, I think there’s a lot of belief that there will be more vaccine available and then we can begin to immunize even more people,” he said. “I will tell you both the Health Department and the Truman side of it say we can ramp up. … Our limiting factor right now is not our capacity. Our limiting factor is how much vaccine we have.” 

He said TMC could do 2,500 vaccinations a day – at its Lakewood and Hospital Hill campuses and at one-time events in the community – if it had enough vaccine.

New distribution plan

The state of Missouri on Monday announced a new plan for 76,000 vaccinations a week. Those vaccines will be distributed through local public health agencies, health centers and pharmacies and 16 large hospitals, including Truman. Some will be distributed at National Guard events.

What that means for Truman is 5,000 doses this week and 5,000 doses in the third week of February.

“Now I can tell you that is not enough to meet the demand, because we’re clearly exceeding that,” Shields said.

The state is allowing shots in phases, based on need and risk.

First came health-care workers and those in long-term care facilities, i.e. nursing homes. That was phase 1A.

“So we’re through that – actually had fairly decent success,” Shields said;

Then it was first responders, phase 1B, tier 1 – also done.

Now it’s 1B, tier 2 – those 65 and older and those with underlying health conditions such as compromised immune systems. 

“We’re hoping as we get vaccine allocations to us that we will then be prioritizing that phase 1B, tier 2, which is that 65-and-older and high-risk group,” Shaffer said. The county Health Department has done 7,500 vaccinations but got no vaccine from the state last week or this week.

The Health Department has an online “survey notification tool” on the county website. So far, Shaffer said, more than 130,000 people have signed up. Users answer a few questions and then are told they’ll be notified – email or text – when the phase they fall into comes up. 

Once 1B, tier 2 – 65-plus, health conditions – is completed, it’s time for tier 3, which Shields called “critical infrastructure – and that includes teachers.” He said officials are waiting for the governor’s office for approval to move to that step.

Communities of color

Shields also said TMC is making an extra effort to reach out to communities of color and encourage getting vaccinated. That has included working through churches, getting Black doctors to spread the word, and staging clinics in places where transportation and access are already barriers. 

Officials even highlighted the fact that Chiefs great Bobby Bell – a member of the Super Bowl IV championship team and now 80 years old – got a vaccine last week,

“We continue to add sites as we focus particularly on seniors of color,” Shields said.

Not only are there racial disparities in the delivery of health care, for historic reasons there is often suspicion and resistance about getting a shot.

“There is a high degree of distrust about actually taking the vaccine, the immunization,” Shields said.

So officials hope and expect to get a higher rate of shots to people of color over time.

“There’s a lot of effort going out on this,” Shields said.

Loophole?

Shields also described a potential glitch built into the system. 

“People have to self-attest to whether they are age 65 or above or have one of those health conditions,” he said. “And we’ve been given very specific direction from the state not to challenge. If somebody says they have one of those health conditions, we can’t verify it, we can’t challenge it. They self-attest to that.”

He said given human nature, he’s sure some have taken advantage of that.