Ready to put vaccines into arms

by Kate Shunney

Morgan-Berkeley County Health Department staff are more than a year into unprecedented demands to act as the front line of public health here in the COVID-19 pandemic.  Local staff has now put their primary focus on getting vaccines to county residents.

Nursing director Angela Gray said her vision is very clear – getting COVID-19 vaccines from her hand to someone’s arm.

Angela Gray draws doses of the COVID-19 vaccine during a community vaccination event in January.

Despite a clear mission, and the staff and community partners to make it happen, Gray said outside factors are holding back a full vaccination push.

She sees two main barriers – not enough vaccine doses being allocated to the Eastern Panhandle by the state, and a state vaccination scheduling program that’s not up to the job.

Those barriers are causing frustration for both public health nurses and the people in this area who desperately want to be vaccinated.

Morgan-Berkeley Health Department has been running vaccination clinics for segments of the public since January in two main locations – the Recreation Center in  Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs High School’s gymnasium here in Morgan County.

Health department nurses, volunteer nurses from medical practices and area colleges have given doses of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to thousands of residents at those locations, and continue to run the clinics weekly.

Gray said her teams could keep up a steady pace in those “pods” – the tightly-managed community vaccination setting – if she had the vaccine doses. She says Morgan County nurses Patty Caldwell and Jackie Riggleman have been aggressive in getting doses administered in all sorts of settings.

“With our community partners, we can put 1,000 doses out in a day,” said Gray.

Morgan County residents have remarked on the efficiency of the clinics – short wait times, quick vaccination and caring from nurses and emergency medical staff.

Jennifer Schetrompf, the Health Department’s Threat Preparedness and Health Promotion Coordinator, said clinics are planned and run with staff and volunteers from a long list of community partners.

These include Senior Life Service of Morgan County, Morgan County EMS, Morgan County Schools, Mountaineer Community Health, Tri-State Community, War Memorial Hospital, Shepherd University’s School of Nursing, Morgan County Sherriff’s Department, West Virginia State Police, the county’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Panhandle Home Health and First United Methodist Church. Donations of refreshments for Morgan County clinics have come from Morgan County Starting Points, Berkeley Springs Rotary, Life or Drugs Tri-State Support and private individuals.

How many doses?

Gray said the number of vaccine doses being sent for Morgan and Berkeley counties to the vaccine “hub” at Berkeley Medical Center has been changing weekly. That inconsistency makes it hard for Health Department staff and volunteers to schedule residents for their vaccines more than a few days ahead.

Some weeks, Morgan County has received 90 doses. Some weeks, it gets 200 doses. On others, it was 300.

Health Department vaccination clinic being set up in the Berkeley Springs High School gym.

Knowing the number of doses is crucial to scheduling and clinic logistics.

Sometimes, the Health Department doesn’t know until Tuesday how many doses they’ll have to give out during a Saturday vaccination clinic.

That means staff doesn’t know exactly how many residents to call for their first or second vaccination shot until mid-week.

Vaccination lists

Residents have been pushed to sign up for their place on the state’s vaccination waiting list. That list is managed by the private company Everbridge. West Virginians over the age of 16 can sign up to be on it.

Gray said Morgan-Berkeley Health Dept. officials are still working off their initial local sign-up list from January, finally getting to residents who have now been waiting for over a month to get a call.

Gray said the state’s sign-up program now holds tens of thousands of names, but that program can’t effectively generate a call list the Health Department can use right away.

Staff and volunteers in Morgan County are now sorting through the list to remove names of people who have already gotten their vaccine. In some cases, the Health Dept. will call a county resident to set up their vaccine appointment, and be told that person has already gotten their shot.

Gray is hopeful the state can find a sign-up program that county-level frontline health workers can use effectively with vaccine registry programs they already use.

Here in Morgan County, residents have been eager to get vaccinated. So much so that Gray and volunteers have sometimes had to walk a line of cars waiting for a chance to get a dose, and send people home to wait their turn for a shot.

Gray said state-level officials make the decision about how much vaccine goes to each of their “hub” locations. She doesn’t know how that allocation is figured.

“It sure isn’t population-based. It sure isn’t based on positivity rates,” Gray said.

“We’ve put out all the vaccines we’ve been allotted,” she said of the combined county health departments.

Once the COVID-19 vaccine has been thawed out from freezers where it is kept at -70 degrees Fahrenheit, the vaccine has to be used within a certain time frame or will go to waste.

Gray isn’t about to let any of that vaccine go anywhere but in a person’s arm.

In fact, she has told state officials that improperly-sized needles provided with vaccine dose packs are leading to the loss of vaccine doses – what she calls angel doses.

“We’re watching those doses drip out of too-big needles onto our uniforms,” she said.

Gray and other nurses with the Health Department have been putting the vaccine into arms since the first shipment of Pfizer arrived in West Virginia, In the first phases of the effort, they were administering shots to EMS, police, firefighters out in the two counties – sometimes out in the field.

Gray said one EMS worker stationed in Paw Paw needed to get his shot, so she arranged to meet him at the Detour Road pull-off in Great Cacapon and gave him the vaccine by the side of the road. Other nurses have taken the vaccine to shut-ins or elderly residents they know  wouldn’t be able to get to a mass vaccination clinic.

For Health Department staff, this vaccination phase of the COVID-19 pandemic is seen as the way out of what has been an unrelenting public health crisis.

Since January of 2020, they have shifted from learning about the new, highly-contagious virus to educating the public about ways to avoid getting the respiratory disease. When the disease arrived in these communities, Health Department staff then pivoted to case investigations, monitoring patients, working with businesses to adhere to pandemic operation guidelines, and more.

Most staff have been working 12 to 16-hour days, six to seven days a week, as the tide of COVID cases rose.

Gray said local vaccination clinics have been a huge morale booster for nurses, volunteers and Health Department staff.

The public has been so grateful to get their vaccine doses, and take steps toward a more normal way of life.

One Sunday afternoon, a gentleman showed up at Gray’s house. He had gotten his vaccine the day before at a Morgan County clinic for residents over the age of 80. The man handed her a cherry pie he had made himself, as a way to thank her for her work taking care of him and the community.

Those gestures drive her harder to find more doses to protect more local residents.

“We need to do that before these mutations become the dominant strain, so we don’t have to do this all over again,” Gray said.

The public needs to keep following safety precautions for COVID-19 for now.

“They need to know this pandemic isn’t over. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s still a long tunnel,” she said.