Health care workers still scramble for vaccine

Rising Starr Middle school nurse Tiffany Blair receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination from a nurse at the Fayette County Health Department earlier this month. Across the state, family physicians, traveling nurses, home health staff and practitioners not affiliated with a hospital have had problems getting vaccinated, even though they may be the first point of contact of those with COVID-19.
Rising Starr Middle school nurse Tiffany Blair receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination from a nurse at the Fayette County Health Department earlier this month. Across the state, family physicians, traveling nurses, home health staff and practitioners not affiliated with a hospital have had problems getting vaccinated, even though they may be the first point of contact of those with COVID-19.

Dr. Joseph Galitzin knew he had no time to waste to try to obtain a dose of the shot that would protect him from COVID-19.

The Peachtree City dermatologist was especially vulnerable. Roughly 15 years ago, he had almost died of the flu.

“I was in the ICU on a ventilator just like these horrible stories you hear about people currently with COVID,’' he said. “I know what it is like to get wrecked up with this stuff.”

But he couldn’t find a clinic in Georgia that would schedule him for the shot. After a three-hour call hold to schedule an appointment, he and his wife, also a physician, drove two hours to Athens, where they were among the few hundred lucky recipients on a waiting list of thousands.

ExploreThe latest news on the coronavirus vaccines

The U.S. Centers for Disease and Prevention Control urged states to make it priority to vaccinate their health care workforce, due to their greater risk of exposure to the virus. Yet five weeks after vaccine was first distributed, thousands of health care workers are going without the protections because of the shortage of supplies and flawed distribution.

Family physicians, traveling nurses, home health staff and practitioners not affiliated with a hospital have had problems getting vaccinated, even though they may be the first point of contact of those with COVID-19. Employees of hospital systems, particularly large ones, have fared better because the federal government has been more likely to ship large doses of the vaccines to those facilities.

“I’d say I’m exposed,’' said Gail Trauco, an Atlanta nurse who runs clinical trials at hospitals and oncology centers throughout the Southeast.

“I’m in cancer centers every week,’' said Trauco, also a patient advocate. “I’ve probably been in 50 patients’ homes in the last week.”

Georgia Gov. Brian P. Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey clap after Grady ICU nurse Norma Poindexter becomes the first health care worker in Georgia to receive her COVID-19 vaccination on Dec. 17. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
Georgia Gov. Brian P. Kemp and Dr. Kathleen Toomey clap after Grady ICU nurse Norma Poindexter becomes the first health care worker in Georgia to receive her COVID-19 vaccination on Dec. 17. (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In her effort to try to schedule a vaccine in Atlanta, the nurse has spent days on websites that crashed, she said. She also has been put on hold and added to waiting lists. So far, she’s not sure what she is going to do to try to access it. She says she takes a COVID-19 test every week to try to make sure she doesn’t spread the virus to her patients.

“Providers are trying to roll this out, but I don’t think it’s working. It’s certainly not working in Georgia,” Trauco said.

The situation doesn’t appear likely to ease anytime soon.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced early last week it would release doses that had been reserved for required booster shots. But federal officials later confirmed that those reserves already had been exhausted and states would not receive any extra supplies on top of their current allotment.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Brian Kemp said his office has not received any updates on Georgia’s allocation.

‘Where do we go?’

As states enter month two of the vaccine deployment, home health agencies and others who hire health care workers are hopeful that more doses will be available for their employees.

Henry “Hank” Drummond, who is chief clinical officer at one of the nation’s largest travel nurse placement agencies, has noticed a greater awareness among hospital executives and others to include his members in large-scale efforts to immunize their employees and to assure the booster is provided to travel nurses before their contracts expire.

ExplorePlanning, communication breakdowns hinder Georgia vaccine rollout

“I think as the doors open to bring in more supply, we will see more of our staff receiving it,” said Drummond, of Cross Country Healthcare in Florida.

The issue is more complicated among home health agencies, said Levi Pavlovsky, co-founder and chief operating officer at New York-based Medflyt, which helps provide staffing to the agencies.

Those organizations are just beginning to grapple with whether to require that the employees be vaccinated as a prerequisite for employment. A recent survey showed roughly half of the workforce was reluctant to take the shot until more is known about its side effects.

“Providers are trying to roll this out, but I don’t think it’s working. It’s certainly not working in Georgia.”

- Gail Trauco, an Atlanta nurse

At the same time, two-thirds said they would be more willing to work with homebound patients who were vaccinated.

The company has been trying to disseminate information to home health aides and others about vaccination, Pavlovsky said.

But, “then the question becomes when and where. That’s when everybody freezes up and looks at each other and wonders, “Where do we go?”

Employees of hospitals and large healthcare providers have had a much different experience.

By early January, Melissa Peterson, a physician’s assistant at Barbour Orthopaedics & Spine in Atlanta, had already completed both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Her facility is affiliated with Emory Decatur Hospital. As a result, she was on an email blast that alerted her to show up at the Atlanta facility. She waited in a line of a few hundred people, but the wait was only 20 minutes before a shot was in her arm, she said.

Early this month, she was instructed to show up at a drive-thru location, where she received the booster.

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

She noted how fortunate she was to work for an employer affiliated with Emory. Had she not been credentialed, she likely would not have received the shots so quickly.

“It was very quick and efficient,’' Peterson said.

‘Best they can’

Dr. Matthew Norman was among the thousands of Georgia physicians who received a blanket email from the state in December tell them they were eligible for the first phase of the vaccination distribution.

The email advised physicians that they could seek the vaccine from their employers and healthcare institutions where they worked.

Those physicians who were not affiliated with a healthcare institution were urged to turn to their county boards of public health. But local health departments had more demand than supply, leaving doctors and some other health care workers scrambling for shots.

When he received the email, Norman, who is psychiatrist in private practice in Atlanta, immediately went to the website for the Fulton County Board of Public Health. After he clicked on a link that allowed him to access paperwork and request the vaccine, he was quickly notified that he would be contacted as soon as an appointment was available.

Roughly a week later, he received an email that doses were available. He clicked on a link and was able to schedule an appointment.

But he said that colleagues who clicked on the board’s link a few hours later than he did were not able to schedule appointments. Norman tried to sign up another physician in his office who does direct patient care and was unable to get her a slot.

“The times available, all of a sudden, just disappeared,’' Norman said. “I think they’re doing the best they can, but they are just overwhelmed by all this.”

Norman said he was surprised to hear from Fulton health officials that the county had not been provided funding to hire staff and run the inoculation clinics.

“I really feel bad that they’ve been handed the ball and told to go distribute the vaccine and get as many people inoculated as possible, but it doesn’t sound like they’ve been told how to do it.”

The county also wasn’t given a template or guidance on how to set up the website for appointments, he said. The website crashed Jan. 11, as appointments opened up for anyone age 65 or older, adding 1.5 million Georgians to the list of those eligible for vaccine.

“I felt the folks at the Fulton County Board of Health are doing the best they can and really trying to get this done correctly but I don’t know if they’re being handed a good playbook other than here’s whom you can inoculate.”

Some in the healthcare workforce have used their ingenuity.

Misty Mattingly, a dental hygienist in Marietta, said she first tried to sign up in Gwinnett County. But with the health department’s appointments booked, she looked on the CDC website and found a pharmacy not far from her home offering the vaccine.

She received her first shot Jan. 4. She is due for a booster Feb. 1.

This email from the Georgia Department of Public Health dated Dec. 10 was the first notice to all state physicians from DPH on the vaccine distribution.
This email from the Georgia Department of Public Health dated Dec. 10 was the first notice to all state physicians from DPH on the vaccine distribution.

Vaccine status

As of Tuesday, Georgia has been sent 927,350 doses of COVID-19 vaccine and had administered 423,011 doses, according to the Department of Public Health website. The state has been allocated but has not yet received 121,025 doses.

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