Health Officials Struggle to Meet Vaccine Demand

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Casper-Natrona County Health Department RN Darlene Pisani inoculates a patient at the department's offices in downtown Casper on Jan. 15, 2021. Natrona County and other county health departments are stretched to keep up with demand for COVID-19 vaccines, but so far the biggest limiting factor is the number of vaccines provided to the state. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

By Dustin BleizefferWyoFile

Demand for COVID-19 vaccinations is outstripping supply and providers are struggling to keep up, public health officials say, as most Wyoming counties continue to expand inoculations beyond top-tier priority populations.

And while many share a hope that the federal government will procure more doses and increase the pace of distribution, they also expect it may become increasingly difficult to meet demand as that occurs.

“Once we get through the [top-tier priority populations] and move on to the general population, we’re going to need more resources,” Teton County Health Department Director of Health Jodie Pond said.

In Teton County, where a person tested positive for the fast-spreading United Kingdom variant of the coronavirus amid a dramatic recent spike in infections, health officials are administering 100% of the county’s weekly allotment of coronavirus vaccines, according to Pond. “We have high demand and we are unable to keep up,” Pond said.

Fremont County has received weekly vaccine allotments of about 975 doses during the month of January. Last week, health officials there said more than 3,000 people in the age 70-and-over population had signed up for a vaccination.

Natrona County health officials ran out of doses the evening of Jan. 15 and didn’t receive another batch until four days later.

“There seems to be a large population wanting to get their vaccines ASAP, and we are doing our best to meet that demand right now,” Casper-Natrona County Health Department spokesperson Hailey Bloom told WyoFile via email.

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Vehicles form a long line at Wyoming Medical Center’s Mesa Primary Care office in Casper for a COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Jan. 13, 2021. Many county health departments have partnered with local hospitals on COVID-19 vaccination efforts. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

The primary bottleneck so far, according to several county health officials, is the number of vaccine doses flowing to Wyoming. Even with that limitation, however, Wyoming is tapping all resources available.

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Between trying to fill desperately needed nursing positions, getting enough volunteers trained to help in vaccination efforts and preparing for the logistics of “mass” vaccination clinics in the months to come, the task is daunting.

Teton County health officials have gotten a taste of what’s to come as it opened up vaccinations for residents 80 and older, Pond explained.

“We’re getting those folks registered,” Pond said. “We have to call them all to make an appointment, and we’re using volunteers right now to do that. Eventually, when we get to the general public, things just get more complicated.”

Strained budgets and staffing

County health departments are funded by various federal, state and local mechanisms, including the Wyoming Department of Health, which has not been spared in the state’s historic budget cuts.

In the simplest terms, budget reductions to the Wyoming Department of Health — those already implemented and proposed additional cuts now before the Legislature — could result in a total budget reduction of $202.4 million, according to Deputy Director for Policy, Research and Evaluation Stefan Johansson. That is equal to 13.7% of the state health department’s original $2 billion budget for the 2020-21 biennium, he said. The reduction estimate includes federal matching dollars lost due to the state’s cuts.

However, Johansson said, the department has painstakingly targeted cuts so they do not impact COVID-19 efforts.

“We took on a few principals to identify where to make cuts to minimize impacts to our very vulnerable populations, and to avoid across-the-board reductions to local response and the state response to the pandemic,” Johansson said. “So you really won’t see a lot of direct impact to our county offices in terms of the COVID-19 response.”

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A registered nurse at Casper-Natrona County Health Department fills a syringe with a COVID-19 vaccination dose on Jan. 15, 2021. Health officials in Natrona County hope to increase a pace of about 300-plus vaccine inoculations per day, but that may depend on getting more vaccine doses and expanding staff and volunteers. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Additionally, DOH has received $161 million from the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act aid allotted to Wyoming. That goes directly to COVID-19 efforts, Johansson said.

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Aside from federal CARES Act funds, which stopped flowing Dec. 31, Wyoming has received $75 million to $100 million in various supplemental funds from the federal government aimed at bolstering COVID-19 efforts, he said.

But even if the state shields COVID-19 programs from state budget cuts — while adding CARES Act and other federal funding to the efforts — the state and counties’ resources are still strained.

“Of course the budgetary demands have increased significantly with COVID-19,” Casper-Natrona’s Bloom said. “All of our staff still are having to do their normal day-to-day jobs, and do extra duties on top. We have had to also hire additional staff as part of our COVID-19 response as a result.”

Additionally, funding for COVID-19 efforts is dedicated to specific uses, such as testing, contact tracing and administering vaccines. Still, “we have been doing COVID-19 vaccination all out of savings so far,” Bloom said.

Nothing is certain, Johansson said, but there are expectations among Wyoming health officials that President Joe Biden’s administration will boost federal COVID-19 aid nationally — including to Wyoming — in the forms of dollars, more vaccines and other resources needed to increase the pace of inoculations.

Biden has committed to a nationwide goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office. His plan includes manufacturing more vaccines, expanding vaccination efforts to pharmacies, setting up large vaccination centers and deploying mobile vaccination clinics in rural areas.

Meantime, Wyoming is left with the challenge of making sure its own budget cuts don’t hobble COVID-19 efforts. Aside from possibly more federal aid to come, Johannson said, health officials are working hard to recruit volunteers and expand coordination efforts as they hope for more vaccines and the ability to inoculate as many residents as quickly as possible.

“We’re really pleased at the effort our county public health offices have been doing, really shouldering just a huge burden with this pandemic and responding in excellent form,” Johansson said. “We do have concerns about demands being placed both on the state and county offices. Staffing capacity is limited and a lot of our communities are, if not there already, close to critical mass when it comes to the work that they’re doing.”

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