Health leaders urge continued steps against COVOD-19

Jeff Fox
The Examiner

Even as Jackson County struggles to get more COVID-19 vaccines, medical officials say they are seeing improvements to pandemic indicators – but stressed that face masks and other preventive measures are still crucial.

“At this point vaccination rates are really nowhere near where they need to be to limit transmission, so our nonpharmaceutical interventions or those pillars of infection control that we've all heard so much about – social distancing, mask wearing, washing your hands – continue to be as important as ever,” Ray Dlugolecki, assistant director of the Jackson County Health Department, told county legislators earlier this week.

The arrival this week of a third vaccine – this one from Johnson & Johnson – should help, officials said. The other two vaccines are starting to come in greater numbers as well.

“I think before too long – within another month or two – there's going to be a ton of vaccine available, and it'll probably be a challenge to be able to actually administer all of it,” said Dr. Mark Steele, executive chief medical officer at Truman Medical Centers.

Officials have discussed holding mass vaccination events at Arrowhead Stadium once enough vaccines are available.

“We can open up the stadiums. We can open up whatever areas,” said Legislature Chair Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City. “We would love to have a giant vaccination party.”

In the meantime, officials are dealing with far more demand than supply.

The Jackson County Health Department, which oversees Eastern Jackson County outside Independence, went four weeks with no vaccine shipments from the state, though TMC has shared doses. This week the department was getting 4,000 doses.

One challenge is that the state has allocated doses to local health departments by region, and Jackson County is in a region with 12 other west-central Missouri counties with 1.4 million people, or 22 percent of the state’s population. Jackson County accounts for half of those people, and Eastern Jackson County is roughly half of that.

For local health departments across those 13 counties, the state allocates 2,500 vaccines a week, so Eastern Jackson County’s share, based on population, would be a little more than 600.

“Obviously that amount is inconsistent with our capacity and our needs,” Dlugolecki said. “We have the capacity to give 7,000 doses at the Health Department by ourselves.” 

Steele at TMC echoed that. 

“We feel like we could easily get to 2,500 per day if we have sufficient vaccines to give out,” he said.

Dlugolecki also outlined how much local vaccinations lag behind the state overall. As of last Friday, he said, 12.8 percent of Missourians had been vaccinated, compared with 9.5 percent in Jackson County. He said the county is among the five counties and cities facing the biggest such gaps, the others being Greene, St. Charles, St. Louis, and the city of St. Louis.

TMC has been a bigger player on vaccines, having delivered more than 42,000 so far and, Steele said, exceeded 2,000 some days between its two campuses at Hospital Hill and Lakewood. 

TMC also continues to hold vaccine clinics two or three times a week at churches and other facilities in Kansas City in an effort to close the vaccination gap in communities of color.

“We're focused on reaching underserved community members, those hard to reach, with a focus on equity,” he said. The hospital is also reaching out by phone to people struggling with online access.

To get a vaccine through TMC, call 404-CARE. Steele said the hospital has worked to make that process better and that wait times are now under five minutes.

Both Steele and Dlugolecki said declines in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, as well as other markers, are encouraging but noted that variants of the virus are showing up – most have been detected here – and that’s a concern.

“The rolling seven-day averages, the hospitalization rates, the death rates are all going in the right direction,” Steele said, “although we're not totally out of the woods, and we've got these variants out there that are starting to show up. So we clearly need to continue the infection-control principles, and then the quicker we can get people vaccinated, the better, which is what we're all trying to do to the best of our ability.”