Ellis Co. ready, waiting for COVID-19 vaccine roll-out

Margaret Allen
Hays Daily News
Austin Thalheim, shift captain for Ellis County Emergency Services, gets vaccinated for COVID-19.

The Ellis County Health Department is poised to quickly vaccinate as many residents as possible, once COVID-19 vaccine arrives from the State of Kansas.

The state is set to receive 17,000 doses of the vaccine in coming days, according to what has been heard by Jason Kennedy, Ellis County health services director.

How that batch will be divvied up to the public health departments in the state’s 105 counties remains to be explained.

“Unfortunately, as with COVID, it’s a moving target. It’s like every day we move the goal posts somewhere else. And so right now that’s how it is with the vaccine,” Kennedy said. “We’re ready to give it, we have the right people to do it, we have the right system to do it, we have all the equipment to do it. We just need the vaccine.”

Speaking Thursday in comments to The Hays Daily News, Kennedy said he’ll update the public as soon as he knows.

Communication has been somewhat lacking from the state with the vaccine roll-out, he said.

“At this time, we have no idea when our next allotment of vaccine is supposed to be here,” said Kennedy. “We haven’t received any local notification of where that vaccine is going, if we are going to get it, when the time frame is we’re going to get it. But I will say that we’re ready to give it. The minute that it shows up, my goal has always been to get it out the door as fast as possible.”

Short notice

This next batch will be Ellis County Health Department’s second.

It may very well arrive on short notice, like the first batch from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“I got a phone call 12 hours prior to our vaccine showing up that said our vaccine was going to another county and that we were supposed to go get it,” Kennedy said. 

The vaccine was delivered as part of a larger batch to Rooks County, where it was broken up into batches for Ellis County and several others in the area.

“Rooks County didn’t know they were getting five counties of vaccine,” he said.

While Ellis County is prepared to go fetch the vaccine, smaller counties are not, given the careful handling requirements.

“A lot of smaller counties were concerned with the geographical distance that they would have to travel, and maintaining that cold storage,” Kennedy said. “So I will say that the state, after hearing those concerns, did get personnel to go pick up those doses and they were delivered to our health department.”

Small batch

The health department’s first batch was only 80 doses, which arrived Dec. 23. Vaccinations were administered Dec. 28-31.

“The state’s initial allocation was really low,” Kennedy said, noting it was designated for the health department staff and Ellis County Emergency Services staff.

It covered what it was supposed to, but with only 50% adoption there was some left over. That was used to vaccinate the private EMS services, both EagleMed air and ground, Ellis County Sheriff’s Department staff who work at the jail — where there was a COVID-19 outbreak in December — and others. Some first responders also got the vaccine, because of the way it’s packaged. One vial holds 10 doses, so those had to be used once opened.

“We also vaccinated the two outlying medical clinics that aren’t affiliated with the hospital, so Hess Clinic and Knoll Clinic,” Kennedy said. “Then we were able to vaccinate the school nurses for all of Ellis County.”

HaysMed, First Care

Besides Ellis County, Hays Medical Center got a batch in the first round for health care workers at the hospital. First Care Clinic, a federally qualified clinic, got an allotment of 400 vaccines for other health care workers in the medical community, including doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, medical student interns and others, said Kennedy. Most of that has been administered, he said.

Only HaysMed and the retail pharmacies got the Pfizer vaccine, with its complex requirements for extreme cold storage. Other entities got the Moderna vaccine, which is easier to store.

“We’ve been meeting with the hospital and First Care Clinic since our initial allocation of vaccine to make sure we’re all working together to serve the community, and we’re not doubling up on efforts,” he said. “We want to come at this at all angles so we can get the vaccine out the door as fast as possible, serve the community, and get people that level of protection as quickly as possible.”

Long-term care facilities have begun scheduling vaccines through government contracts with retail pharmacy chains Walgreen’s and CVS, he said.

Who’s next for vaccine?

Kennedy’s preliminary plan is to follow Gov. Laura Kelly's new phased plan as close as possible, he said Friday, after the governor announced new details Thursday afternoon.

Kelly said people over age 65 are the next priority.

“The minute I get vaccine, we will push it out the door,” Kennedy said. “Vaccine sitting in a fridge doesn’t do anybody any good.”

Kennedy said the health department will alert the public when vaccination clinics are open, with dates, times and an electronic sign-up.

The health department will estimate the number of doses available, and schedule clinics for each priority group as appropriate. 

“We don’t want to waste vaccine,” he said. “That’s why it’s logistically difficult, because we do have to group those into 10, they have to be in certain timeframes, the vaccine has to be thawed for a certain period of time.”

People may want to get on a waiting list with their doctor, as well, he said. Although there’s been no notification from the state as to whether or when those clinics will get vaccine. He’s hopeful they will receive vaccines.

“As a health department, we can’t give vaccine to a clinic to administer to their people unless they have a distribution contract on file with KDHE,” he said. “No one knows what that additional step is yet … But I think it would be phenomenal if we could get this vaccine into the hands of primary care physicians, because they know best the patients that need it.”

Bad communication

Speaking Thursday evening to the Hays City Commission, Sen. Rick Billinger, R-40th, bemoaned the state’s distribution of the vaccine.

“I’m trying to stay very involved in the vaccine. We’re not doing a really good job right now of getting this distributed to the people that need it,” Billinger said. “I talked to Dr. (Lee) Norman again yesterday and told him that we just need to get on this and get it distributed, especially to our seniors. We have so many folks at rest homes, assisted living and people living on their own.”

A couple of small, rural hospitals in the district received more doses than they needed for their first responders and medical staff, he said.

“Some of that was shipped out of this district to Garden City,” Billinger said. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t help our neighbors, or whatever, but communication wasn’t very good, and why didn’t they just go ahead and take care of folks in whichever city that is, when you have the vaccine there, go ahead and treat those folks.”

Billinger said he’s concerned that only a small portion of the vaccine has been distributed.

“A hospital that has extra and they didn’t do that, it just kind of saddens me that you have people left out because of miscommunication,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job on that front.”