BENTON TOWNSHIP — Just before Michigan officials announced an acceleration of the COVID-19 vaccination process on Wednesday, local health officials expressed concern about the supply of the vaccine not coming in fast enough.
“We can schedule clinics and get people scheduled, but we have to keep having vaccine coming,” Courtney Davis, deputy health officer for the Berrien County Health Department (BCHD), told Berrien County’s Board of Health on Wednesday morning.
Soon after, the state authorized local health departments and health care systems to move forward with vaccination of Phases 1B and 1C, starting next Monday.
Those phases include people age 65 and older; front-line essential workers including police officers, first responders, front-line state and federal workers and jail and prison staff; and preK-12 teachers and child care providers.
Berrien County health officials said after that announcement that the county does not have the immediate vaccine supply to support vaccination for all individuals in these groups.
“In order to make the most efficient use of the limited supply of vaccine that is allocated to Berrien County from MDHHS, BCHD will be continuing to focus on vaccinating those in Phase 1A while also adding in additional priority groups when possible,” health officials wrote in a news release issued late in the day.
Davis said during the morning’s board of health meeting that the BCHD got its initial shipment of the Moderna vaccine, but haven’t been able to get any more because the state has redesignated much of the Moderna vaccines to the federal pharmacy program to vaccinate long-term care facilities.
“Which is a vulnerable population, and rightfully so to be a priority, but that means what we’ve got is what we have for a couple of weeks,” Davis said.
Health department officials also said during the meeting that they have not received any funding from the state for help with vaccination efforts.
The supply and financial delays have not stopped the BCHD from robust planning, and setting up a registration process and an online vaccine scheduling platform that will eventually become available to the public as the county moves through the phases.
“The BCHD urges the community to remain patient as efforts are ongoing to ensure adequate vaccine availability for all those who are interested,” officials wrote in the release.
Right now, COVID vaccinations in Berrien County are being done by invitation only to those in Phase 1A. Those who are in Phase 1A, who think they might have been missed, should call the BCHD at 800-815-5485 to indicate their interest in being vaccinated.
Davis said next week the county should start to see a ramping up of vaccination efforts.
“Whatever vaccine cadence we’re doing now, has to keep growing,” Davis said. “So we’re doing dose one for Phase 1A right now, as we move into Phase 1B, we still have to do dose two for every single person who comes through now.”
Davis said filling all the time slots for a clinic in a given day is also very important to the BCHD. She said they’re working with strategic partners to have folks on standby to get the vaccine, should there be gaps in a clinic schedule.
Davis said health department officials also have to think about their other public health functions and programs that it can’t fully stop. They are seeking volunteers to help balance the work load of the department’s full-time nurses.
Additional logistical challenges of mass vaccinations include setting up clinics where people can be socially distanced, and so that at least a few hundred people can get the vaccine at each event, according to Davis. Clinics are being held at the health department office in Benton Township, but also at places around the county to shorten travel times for some.
“The goal is to keep having clinics as long as the state gives us vaccine,” Davis said.
She said the health department is also working with Spectrum Health Lakeland to make sure no efforts are duplicated, and to add some extra accountability to make sure each entity is using its supply of vaccine in a timely manner.
Lakeland is currently vaccinating its staff with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as part of Phase 1A, and will shift to helping vaccinate the community as the phases are worked through, according to Davis.
“The state’s message is, ‘use the vaccine you have’ and we’re doing just that; I’m just hoping we’ll keep getting more,” she said.
The health department estimates that about 50 percent of people will wait to get the COVID-19 vaccine, or not get it at all.
Ken Edwards, a local orthopedic surgeon and member of the board of health, said he’s been seeing a surprising reluctance of people not wanting to get the vaccine, noting that massive participation is necessary for the vaccine to be effective.
“I’m very happy this vaccine has been rolled out, but I’m very concerned about these pockets of reluctance to get the vaccine and wonder what we can do to help,” he said.
Davis said that’s another thing in which the health department has been working with community partners.
“We’re working to identify: who are the trusted partners in people’s lives?” she said. “There is certainly work underway to do that confidence building.”
Davis said the health department has been working with the Area Agency on Aging, senior centers, Meals on Wheels, along with a slew of other entities to coordinate getting folks vaccinated as the vaccine rollout moves through the different phases.
The decline in new COVID-19 cases recently is making contact tracing and case investigation at the health department much more manageable again, said Nicki Britten, health officer for the BCHD.
The county is averaging between 35 and 45 new cases a day, with 51 being recorded on Wednesday.
Britten reported that during the November COVID wave, the county was dealing with several outbreaks at long-term care facilities and that has led to many of the subsequent deaths.
“We’ve unfortunately stuck to the trend that it’s older adults and those with risk factors that are most likely to get it and to die,” she said.
Berrien County recorded one death on Wednesday, bringing the county’s death toll to 182. In addition, the county added 131 recoveries.
With deaths and recoveries, the county is down to about 1,681 active COVID-19 cases. That’s down from 2,169 active cases last Wednesday.
Britten said hospitalizations are still the data that best represents the spread of COVID-19 in a community. Spectrum Health Lakeland had 40 COVID-19 patients admitted Wednesday morning. That’s down from 52 last Wednesday.
The BCHD is still encouraging folks to sign up for its COVID-19 vaccine newsletter.
It will be sent out about every other week, according to Gillian Conrad, the BCHD’s communications manager. More frequent updates, if available, will be posted on the department’s social media channels. Larger announcements will also be disseminated through local news media.
To sign up, and for more COVID vaccine information, visit www.bchdmi.org/1745/COVID-19-Vaccine-Information.