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Oklahoma Watch: State takes back 2,500 vaccines to address delays at veterans centers

Oklahoma Watch: State takes back 2,500 vaccines to address delays at veterans centers

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LAWTON — The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Friday took back 2,500 vaccines it had given to CVS for long-term care residents and brought them to veteran centers in Lawton, Claremore, Ardmore, Clinton, Norman and Sulphur. CVS and Walgreens are contracted by the federal government to vaccinate those most vulnerable to the virus.

Nearly three weeks after vaccinations began, most Oklahoma nursing homes had received the first of two doses despite a slower-than-expected rollout. But veteran centers, which had some of the state’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, had been delayed.

Keith Reed, who is overseeing the process as the state Health Department’s deputy commissioner, was done waiting.

“They represent our most vulnerable population,” Reed said. “We just could not stand by and let our veterans and our veteran centers go another week without getting vaccinated.”

Over two days, the state deployed county health departments and called on its contract with Passport Health to bring vaccinations to six of its seven veteran centers. The Talihina center had already received the vaccine.

Michael Russell is an Army veteran and administrator at the Fort Sill veteran center in Lawton, where the Comanche County Health Department administered nearly 120 vaccines on Saturday. Russell had been preparing residents and staff for a vaccine clinic that CVS had scheduled for next week. He was notified on Thursday that the state was taking over and the date had been moved up.

“We’ve been fairly lucky, but I heard from some of the other centers with the largest blowouts and fatalities, they started getting positives and then the virus spread incredibly fast and there was nothing they could do,” Russell said. “So one week could make all the difference.”

Russell was the first to be vaccinated and said he is encouraging his staff and residents to do the same.

“We’ve been fighting a defensive battle, and this is a preventive measure and a positive step we can take to actually fight back,” Russell said.

Since March, more than 10,000 of Oklahoma’s long-term care residents and staff have contracted COVID-19, and 813 have died.

Following guidance from the state, most of Oklahoma’s 650 long-term care facilities signed up for the federal program with CVS and Walgreens. The state was responsible for vaccinating staff and residents at 177 facilities that chose not to sign up or missed the deadline. All of those facilities received their first dose within two weeks after distribution began.

It took CVS three weeks to bring vaccines to 60 of the 170 facilities in its program. Walgreens would not provide the number of facilities enrolled in its Oklahoma program or how many had received the vaccine. Both companies refused to name the facilities they are serving.

CVS spokesman Joseph Goode responded to questions by email Friday. “We are working with the state to reallocate vaccine supply in order for the National Guard to vaccinate those who have given so much in service to our country,” he said when asked about veteran centers. “We’re grateful for our partnership with the state and for our health care professionals who are working together throughout Oklahoma to bring peace of mind to the state’s veteran homes residents, staff, and their loved ones.”

A Walgreens spokesman refused to provide any information or data about its Oklahoma program in an email Friday.

With the state taking over veteran centers, CVS and Walgreens are expected to bring vaccines to the last of Oklahoma’s nursing homes this week completing “plan A” of the two-part, long-term care rollout, Reed said. But as the state opens vaccinations to the 65-and-older general population, residents and staff at remaining long-term care facilities are still waiting.

Vaccinations are weeks away for thousands of residents and staff at assisted living facilities, adult day cares, residential care centers and facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities. These facilities make up “plan B.” Some are scheduled to receive their first vaccines later this month or next. Others remain in the dark.

In Norman, staff at Arbor House Reminisce said they’re still waiting on a date from CVS. The Gardens at Rivermont assisted living facility is scheduled for Feb. 1. And a worker who answered the phone at Brookdale Norman retirement community said she is “super pumped” for the vaccine, which will arrive there later this month.

All facilities should receive their first round by mid-February, according to the companies’ websites. But some aren’t willing to wait any longer.

“I knew this would be tough, but I did hope that we would do the responsible thing and take care of the most vulnerable people first,” said Shannon Bailey, a 47-year-old health care worker in Bartlesville. “But that’s not what happened, so I guess we’re going to have to take it into our own hands.”

Responsibility falls to CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate the Oklahoma’s remaining long-term care residents.

Reed, the deputy health commissioner, said the state, including the Governor’s Office, is putting pressure on the companies to move quickly by requesting progress reports. The state will continue designating a portion of its weekly vaccine allocation until vaccines have been administered at all long-term care facilities, he said.

The state doesn’t have the resources to vaccinate all of the remaining facilities without damaging progress already made, Reed said. Taking over the long-term care vaccinations would mean shutting down public clinics for weeks and jeopardizing future vaccine allocations to the state.

“If we do that, we’re not doing anything to help our hospitals,” Reed said. “We’re not doing anything to help break that transmission. But we’re also leaving vaccine in the freezer, which means it also communicates on the federal level that we’re not able to move vaccine and that’s going to impact our ability to get more vaccine into the state to help more Oklahomans.”

“We’re going to be facing a lot of these moral dilemmas moving forward and ethical challenges,” he said, “and unfortunately there’s no good answers.”

Video: Delays getting distributed vaccines to those who need them

Gallery: These are some of the Oklahomans we’ve lost to COVID-19

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