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Council calls for city health department to reopen

Members of Suffolk’s city council, including its mayor and vice mayor, have called for the city’s health department to reopen as part of an effort to provide residents the COVID-19 vaccine in an expedited manner.

Interim City Manager Al Moor said the city is working with acting Western Tidewater Health District director Dr. Lauren James to get it open to allow city residents to get the vaccine there, rather than have to travel outside the city to get it.

Currently, the Suffolk and Southampton County health departments are closed in the district, while Franklin’s and Isle of Wight County’s are open.

The health district announced the availability of the vaccine for those in Phase 1B beginning next week, but all available slots for the next two weeks were taken within hours of the announcement.

Deputy Fire Chief Brian Spicer, during his Jan. 20 presentation to council, also noted that Suffolk Fire & Rescue paramedics have been getting trained on administering the vaccine — it has applied with the state to allow them to be vaccinators — as a way to help a shorthanded health district. The district has been largely using its Medical Reserve Corps to administer vaccines during Phase 1A.

“I think that us getting our personnel able to give vaccines, then our only barrier becomes the issue of getting the vaccine,” Spicer said.

Spicer urged patience with the vaccine process, saying there is still a limited supply of it.

“We’re at the mercy of the health departments as to when they release the vaccine or make it available to get,” Spicer said. “We continue to talk to them daily.”

Spicer noted the state health department data on vaccine distribution and administering around the state, and in the city — with 943,400 doses distributed, nearly 325,000 administered and more than 16,000 administered daily. Nearly 1,800 people in the city, he said, had received at least one dose of the vaccine, with 56 having received two doses.

However, state health officials have said there is a lag time with the reporting of vaccine data.

But not only were councilmembers frustrated with the lack of vaccine availability in the city, they have also been hearing from residents who can’t reach the health department or find information on when they can get the vaccine.

Mayor Mike Duman and other council members said the city’s health department needs to be open to provide the vaccine to residents. He said most of the complaints he has received have been from those in the 65-plus age group who are now eligible for the vaccine but have trouble accessing the information they need.

“The health department controls the vaccine, and it seems we’re getting put on the backburner there,” Duman said to Spicer. “Our health department’s closed, looks like we’re getting put on the backburner there. We need to sit down with the forces that we have in your department, the manager’s office, myself if necessary, and we need to sit down with the health department and let them know that 94,000 people don’t need to be placed on the backburner, not in our city. There’s no information out there.”

Duman also said that internet access is an issue for residents in rural areas of the city who will want to sign up to get the vaccine.

Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett said the local health department should be open, and that more locations — such as the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront, East Suffolk Recreation Center and East End Baptist Church — should be available in the city for people to get the vaccine.

“I am getting a lot of calls and concerns about why they can’t get the shots,” Bennett said. “And that question is out there and needs to be answered. People want to know why they can’t get the shots.”

Bennett said the city needs more locations to get vaccinations.

“I don’t know that it’s necessarily an issue with facility space to do that as much as it is for staffing for the health department and supply of vaccine,” Spicer said.

Councilman Roger Fawcett called it “ridiculous” that the city’s health department is not open.

Moor said the city has been speaking with an area physicians group, putting them in contact with the Hilton Garden Inn Suffolk Riverfront. He said the group has ordered about 4,000 doses. He said that would likely come through in about a week.

“This is evolving daily, and I hope that I have better information as we move ahead to the next

few days,” Moor  said.

Spicer said Suffolk Fire & Rescue staff, falling into the Phase 1A group, had the opportunity to receive the vaccine earlier this month, with about 44% opting to get their first dose at that time. Another 15 of its employees are still to receive their first dose, with the ones who received it earlier this month scheduled for their second dose in a three-day period beginning Feb. 3.

Suffolk Public Schools staff, in Phase 1B, are scheduled to begin receiving the vaccine Jan. 25 at King’s Fork High School.

The health district, in announcing the move to Phase 1B of vaccinations, said it was excited to move ahead. Phase 1B includes frontline essential workers, which include all city employees, along with people aged 65 and old and people aged 18 and 64 with a high-risk medical condition (Phase 1B: https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/covid-19-vaccine/).

City employees have been added to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s VANS System — Vaccine Administration and Management System — which allows them to self-register for a time and location to receive their first vaccine dose.

Spicer noted four of the locations — two in Suffolk and one each in Franklin and Smithfield — but said there are roughly 10 clinics within a 50 mile radius of the city. Four of those are in Norfolk, three of them in the city and another in Portsmouth through its health department.

Others in Phase 1B, Spicer said, should seek guidance from their primary care physician on how and when they can get the vaccine.

“Our staff has done an exceptional job planning for this vaccine rollout and strives to continue to provide exceptional service to the localities we serve just as we have done through the entire pandemic,” said Dr. Lauren James, interim district director, in a statement.

The health district wants organizations who have people in Phase 1B to email Emergency Manager Will Drewery at will.drewery@vdh.virginia.gov to get access to the online scheduling portal. He said there would be someone answering calls placed to the Suffolk Health Department phone number during regular business hours.

With the vaccine available in a limited supply, the health district has asked for the public’s patience as it works through the phases of administering the vaccine.

“The number of appointments we’re going to make is going to depend largely on the number of vaccines we’re able to get,” Drewery said.

He added that the district had not yet had any trouble getting the number of doses requested.

“We don’t sit on doses,” he said. “Everything that we receive goes out within the same week.”