Staff shortage may slow vaccine rollout

Dr. Elizabeth Buck, right, gets her first of two COVID-19 vaccination shots administered by registered nurse Ashley Gavin at the Saranac Lake Hudson Headwaters Health Network office in the Adirondack Medical Center building on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

As the number of people eligible for vaccination against the coronavirus grows, staff shortages could be a significant hurdle for the North Country region to overcome in its distribution efforts.

Dr. Wouter Rietsema, vice president of population health and information services at Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh, told reporters during a press conference Tuesday that a lack of qualified staff will be the “number-one rate limiter” for the North Country region as more people become eligible for vaccinations.

With more people expected to become eligible to get vaccinated in the coming weeks, county health departments will be stepping in to help vaccinate that expanded eligible part of the population. But these departments have faced budget cuts for years, Rietsema said, and taking on vaccine distribution will force many of them to divert staff from things like contact tracing to make it happen.

“Vaccination takes people,” Rietsema said. “(Staffing is) the single most limiting fact, I think. I think we’ll probably get to a point where our supply will no longer be a rate limiter, and staff will be a rate limiter.”

The Essex County Health Department, for example, has eight staff members. A state contact tracing team will be taking on more of the county’s contact tracing duties — though the health department will continue to work directly with county residents who test positive for COVID-19 — as the department prepares to stage mobile, drive-thru vaccine clinics throughout the county, according to Essex County Public Health Director Linda Beers.

The Medical Reserve Corps, a national network of volunteers, is also recruiting volunteers to supplement local vaccine distribution efforts.

Retired nurses, doctors and other health care professionals who may be able to help with vaccinations are encouraged to contact their respective county health departments to learn more about how to help. Rietsema said the work of vaccinating others is “very rewarding.”

“Every morning, before I do anything else, I walk through the vaccination clinic (at CVPH),” he said. “I see happy people, and happy people receiving the vaccine.

“If you’re aware, you have skills and you can help with vaccinations … you will be needed.”

Broader distribution network

Hospitals and county health departments aren’t the only organizations that have applied to be vaccine distributors.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday said a total of 3,762 organizations statewide have enrolled to be vaccination provider sites — including health departments, hospitals, federally qualified health centers, private doctor networks, pharmacies and urgent care centers. Only 636 of those have been “activated” so far with vaccine deliveries, according to Cuomo. In the North Country region, 25 of 150 that have applied have been activated.

Cuomo also noted that the state plans to authorize “special efforts” — meaning some agencies, like police departments, fire departments and unions, will be allowed to organize their own vaccine distribution systems to take some of the pressure off of main distribution hubs.

“They have their own employees that can do the vaccines,” Cuomo said.

The state also plans to work with churches, community centers and other organizations on vaccine distribution in an effort to make the process more equitable.

New York state has received shipments of about 300,000 vaccines per week in the last few weeks, according to Cuomo. The governor said he has asked the federal government to increase New York’s allotment of vaccines.

At least 2.1 million New Yorkers are eligible for vaccines in phase one of the state’s vaccine rollout. The state broadened the categories of people eligible to be vaccinated on Monday, to include all those administering COVID-19 vaccines, including health department staff, ambulatory centers staff, home health care workers and hospice workers, and “congregate setting” staff and residents. Health care workers, first responders, nursing home residents and staff are also eligible to be vaccinated in the first phase of the state’s vaccine rollout.

Those unsure of whether or not they’re eligible to be vaccinated can visit am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov.

On average, New York hospitals have distributed about 46% of the vaccines delivered to them, Cuomo said Monday. Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake is among the swiftest, administering 87% of its allotted vaccine doses as of Monday, according to the governor’s office.

Cuomo announced on Monday that hospitals that don’t use up their existing vaccine stock by the end of this week could face fines of up to $100,000.

COVID variant is here

Public health experts say the state’s vaccine rollout has to speed up before hospitals become overwhelmed again — or before a new variant of the virus spreads in New York, the New York Times reported on Friday. Cases of the new variant of the coronavirus — which is more contagious than the virus that has infected millions in this country — have been found in Colorado and California, and on Monday, New York announced its first confirmed case of the variant, in Saratoga Springs.

“This is a virus we have to be extra careful with,” Cuomo said on Tuesday. “The numbers are frightening on the increase of the transmittal of the virus. Even if the lethality doesn’t go up, the fact that it is so much more transmittable is a very real problem.

“We are in a footrace right now between vaccine implementation versus the infection rate and hosptial capacity. This UK strain changes the whole footrace. The UK strain, the rate of infection goes way up. It’s no longer the race that we were running. Apparently, the UK strain can actually overtake the original COVID strain in a matter of weeks,” he said. “This is something we have to watch and we have to pay careful attention to.”

Little genetic testing has been done here to look for the new variant, so it’s impossible to know how widespread it actually is. Rietsema told reporters on Tuesday that at CVPH, the hospital doesn’t have the ability to test specifically for the COVID mutation, but he said he has no reason to believe that a case wouldn’t be identified through traditional COVID-19 testing.

The genetic test required to identify the COVID variant takes some time longer than a normal COVID test. At the state’s top lab, Wadsworth Center in Albany, the test takes about 40 hours to process, according to Cuomo.


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