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‘Starving for information’: City provides update on vaccines

After being closed since last March due to COVID-19, the Suffolk Health Department will later this month resume in-person services once per week.

Dr. Lauren James, the interim director for the Western Tidewater Health District and the director of the Portsmouth Health District, told City Council at its Feb. 3 meeting that it would also provide a weekly vaccination event targeted at vulnerable populations, noting the district had entered Phase 1B of the vaccination program, and that plans are in place for this.

The first vaccination event provided first doses to 120 seniors Jan. 29, she said.

The health department’s closure was one of a number of others in the Eastern Region that also closed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

State vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula, in an interview with the Suffolk News-Herald, said issues with closed health departments and their challenges in getting vaccine information to the public are 20 years in the making.

“I think, without a doubt, we are seeing the impact of two decades of underfunding the local public health infrastructure,” Avula said, “and I think nothing has brought that into clearer focus than a pandemic where our local health departments have been stretched to the limit at every point since last March.”

Local health departments, Avula said, have been gearing up to provide guidance to local governments and people in their communities, setting up testing and contact tracing and case investigations. He said the coronavirus pandemic is the biggest thing that the health departments, and society in general, have faced. He said the challenges from the pandemic require coordinating every available asset in every community to deal with it.

“This, at every turn, has been just an extraordinary challenge, and vaccination is no different,” Avula said.

The health departments in Suffolk and Southampton County, which represent two of the four in the health district, both closed last March as the health departments leased space from the respective localities, which closed the buildings to the public when the pandemic started. Health departments in Franklin and Smithfield remained open.

Prior to COVID-19, James said the city’s health department had only offered in-person services twice per week, and noted that the district has funding for just one nurse practitioner to cover all four district localities.

James said all of the district’s departments — the special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children (WIC), environmental health and nursing — “are still and have been accessible.”

She addressed the lack of information and difficulty in reaching the city’s health department and called for patience as the health district works through the vaccination process.

“We are aware that the public needs better access to us,” James said.

Mayor Mike Duman told James people “are starving for information” about the vaccination process.

“Nobody’s upset because they can’t get a vaccine today,” Duman said. “We have to find a way to disseminate information in a more effective manner.”

Duman said the city would offer any resources — whether it be personnel, a call center, vaccinators, traffic control for drive-through events and locations to perform vaccinations.

“We know you have limited resources,” Duman said. “The problem we run into is most individuals can’t go to a website to get information.”

Duman noted his own call to the health department and that he heard the same recording that has been on its voice mail system for the past two weeks.

“Our citizens need to know more than that.” Duman said. “That answering machine, in my feeble opinion, needs to have alternate ways of communication, be it Franklin’s number, Isle of Wight’s number, Southampton’s number – all facilities within your district. It needs to have a daily update to keep our citizens informed so they’re not sending me (emails).

Duman said he has been in contact with Del. Clinton Jenkins several times about improving the vaccination process and getting information to the public.

Western Tidewater residents, in Suffolk and throughout the district, have had sporadic success in reaching someone by phone at the respective health departments, and not finding adequate information online.

Gov. Ralph Northam said during a Feb. 5 news conference that the state health department has begun training 750 new call center workers to answer phones and provide information about the COVID-19 vaccines. Those call centers, Northam said, are expected to be activated within a week, and will provide information in English and Spanish.

Avula, in addressing the issue with not reaching a live person at the health department, said calls not answered by the health department would get forwarded to the state call center.

“The local health department website and phone number are the primary places to go for that information,” Avula said, “but we recognize … that the demand in 1B has led to a situation where many people are trying to call and can’t get through, so we’ve recognized we’ve got to stand up a centralized call center so that people don’t have to deal with the frustration of busy lines or not being able to get through to somebody.”

Avula said the design of the state call center “is that local health department numbers will roll over to the state health departments and that the agents at the centralized call center will have clear sightlines into how each local health department is handling the registration process.”

James said the health district is working on updating its website. It’s a task that district Medical Reserve Corps coordinator Connor Smith had taken on in recent weeks. James said there is no one on staff to handle information technology needs, but it has reached out to the state health department to assist in updating the website “to have more relevant and updated information.”

The city is supporting the health department in having a call center to get vaccine information and resources. She said current links online put people in a waiting pool and don’t actually sign anyone up to receive the vaccine.

She said Phase 1B in Virginia represents about 60% of its population and would take months to vaccinate this group.

“We are in a good position, and as soon as we get more (vaccine doses), we will do more,” James said.

James said eventually, the health district would be partnering with CVS, Harris Teeter and Walmart, but those places would be vaccinating their own employees first before vaccinating the public. It is also partnering with Bayview Physicians Group and Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, she said.

At the end of February, the health district, like the rest of the state, will move to a new vaccine registration tool from the state department of health, which James said will be a better and more easily accessible tool, but there have been delays in getting people registered because the transition “has created a kind of kink in the system.”

Suffolk Deputy Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator Brian Spicer said vaccine doses in the health district had increased from 800 to 1,700 in the past week, with no expected increase in supply for the next four to five weeks.

Spicer said the city is coordinating with the health district at least once per day and has district emergency manager Will Drewery on speed dial. He said Suffolk Fire & Rescue paramedics have completed training on administering the vaccine, and it has a memorandum of understanding with the health district, and is awaiting the state department of health’s nurse manager to sign off on allowing the department’s paramedics to assist in vaccine distribution.

He noted Walgreens’ work in vaccinating people at long-term care facilities, visiting each one three times. It expects to complete vaccinations at long-term care facilities by mid-February.

Spicer said military members can seek a vaccine through their respective command. The Department of Veterans Affairs, Spicer said, is also offering vaccines for veterans and said people should contact it to see if veterans are eligible to get the vaccine that way.

Avula said the state is getting about 120,000 new doses per week to distribute based on population, “so for less populated, more rural areas like Western Tidewater, that often means just a couple thousand doses for that community.”

Interim City Manager Al Moor noted a bill in the General Assembly, SB1445, that would allow for any qualified person to volunteer to administer the vaccine, and allow for various medical care facilities, hospitals and other businesses across the state to register as vaccine administration sites. It has passed both the Senate and House of Delegates without a dissenting vote.

Spicer also said that other entities are getting vaccine supplies outside the health district through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s VTrckS vaccine order management system.

Avula said the state and local health departments are doing everything they can to get the information out about the vaccine and then administer it, particularly to essential workers in Phases 1A and 1B, and those aged 65 and up. However, numerous challenges remain.

“I think every health department and partner providers are doing everything they can to get the vaccine out as efficiently as possible,” Avula said. “We just don’t have enough to work through those segments of the population any quicker than we are.”