As they continue to face off against COVID-19 both in testing and vaccination, the Blaine County Health Department isn’t letting anything slow it down.
Vaccination efforts across the state continue and administering the vaccine has moved to the forefront of Blaine County Health Department’s efforts.
“The vaccine has become our top priority and testing is second,” County Health Department Regional Administrator Maggie Jackson said. “That's kind of taken over the health department services.”
Health departments across the state began vaccinating healthcare workers back in December and have since moved on to individuals 65 and older with teachers, staff, and residents in other educational settings to be next in line for vaccines, according to the Oklahoma State Health Department.
The Blaine County Health Department is no different as they have averaged around 60 vaccines administered per day, Jackson said.
“Since [the last week of January], we've been able to provide daily appointments for vaccines at the health department in Watonga,” Jackson said. “I think we're averaging about 60, which is a lot because we just have one nurse there, so she's busy. She has been rocking out.”
That nurse is RN Coordinating Nurse Lillie Taylor who became a nurse after growing up having “two strong women in her family” who were both registered nurses.
While Taylor is the only registered nurse working for the Blaine County Health Department that administers vaccines, she has had some help from others.
“I can’t take all the credit for giving vaccines daily,” Taylor said. “On Monday, Wednesday and Friday I have the help of a Children First Nurse from Canadian County to help me administer vaccines, and on Thursdays and Fridays, I have a National Guard Medic that assists me to administer vaccines. I am blessed to have a second vaccinator daily, and I am grateful for their help and couldn’t do it without them.”
With more than 60 vaccines administered daily and 729 Blaine County residents vaccinated as of Jan. 29, and more than 500,000 doses of the vaccine administered across the state, getting an appointment for the vaccine has proven difficult for some residents.
“Unfortunately, our appointment system is internet and email-based,” Jackson said. “That has posed a huge challenge for people that may not have access to the internet.”
The health department is unable to schedule appointments by phone call; however, officials are aware of the challenges brought on by the use of their online appointments system.
“We're doing our best to get people appointments through that web portal,” Jackson said. “If people call 211, we do have a waiting list of people we’re trying to call back that don't have the internet. So that's the biggest challenge.”
Some people call the health department for help in using their online scheduling portal, Jackson said, and the department does its best to point people in the right direction. Because the health department has been busy, local libraries have been helping others get registered, she said.
The Watonga Public Library has played a role in this effort. Assisting customers who don’t have access to a computer or the internet isn’t unusual to the library as it is one of the many services it offers, Library Director Terri Crawford said.
Crawford provided some tips that she’s become familiar with after helping register people for a vaccine appointment:
• An email address is the first thing required. Crawford said that most people that have come in don’t have an email and will likely only need it for this instance. Knowing the email address and password are required to receive a link to make the appointment.
• Next, you must visit vaccinate.oklahoma.gov to register using the online portal. The portal asks for name, address, birthday, email address, phone number, comorbidities, if they are allergic to eggs or any other vaccine, and if they have had a vaccine in the past 14 days.
• Once they are registered, they can go into their email and click on the link to get in to see if any appointments are available.
“The biggest problem is that new appointments are only available once a week. They are showing up on Wednesdays to book for the next week,” Crawford said.
Even with a vaccine becoming available to the public, there are still some unknowns on the full extent of benefits provided by the vaccine.
The reason behind a oncea-week scheduling system is due in part to the difficulty the health departments have in laying out a plan several weeks in advance.
“That's because we do not add our appointments until we know we can follow through with it. We add appointments throughout the week, but a lot of them are added Wednesday afternoon,” Jackson said. “That's when we have inventoried our supply and we can plan for sure what we can do the following week. [People] won't find an appointment several weeks out or months out because we are waiting to make sure we have this supply.”
In terms of using their inventory, Jackson said that staff tries to make sure that they use everything they have and that they have the exact number of doses for the number of appointments scheduled.
“Our nursing staff are watching every dose like a hawk. It's like precious gold. I don't even know if we've had any go to waste,” Jackson said. “We don't want to see any go to waste, and as far as I know, locally in our county, we've had very, very, very minimal waste, because it’s like diamonds!”
When speaking about immunity, Jackson said that it doesn’t come right away. Instead, they’ve urged people to continue taking COVID-19 precautions until about two weeks after receiving their second dose as immunity should be in effect by then.
“We know that it helps with you [not] becoming sick with the virus. We don't know the impact of the vaccine on if you could still spread it,” Jackson said. “We're still asking people to take those precautions. We definitely think it will help. We're just waiting for a clear answer on if you could still spread the virus after you've been vaccinated.”
A “false confidence” is something Jackson believes could come about with the vaccine at this point. As of now, people who have been vaccinated are still being asked to wear a mask, social distance, and quarantine if they’ve come in contact with someone who has tested positive.
Along with this, information on new strains has popped up across the world which can bring into question the validity of the vaccine.
“We think that SARS-CoV-2 is less likely than the flu to develop those mutations every year, but we don't have enough time yet to know. We've already seen some other strains that have popped up around the world,” Jackson said. “Moderna put out a statement that their vaccine is still effective against the strain from the UK for example. So we're confident that this year, this vaccine will be very effective. We don't know how often we will need to update yet. There's just not been enough time.”
Despite any challenges they’ve faced throughout the pandemic, Jackson said that staff throughout all the health departments in her district have had all hands on deck in dealing with vaccine distribution, COVID testing, and all other services provided by the departments.
“We have staff that usually provide health education or that help support other programs and initiatives in public health. They have been asked to give their time to support the vaccine efforts,” Jackson said. “Some of our typical services are still being provided. WIC for example, which provides nutrition education, we're able to do that over the phone at this time and that helps our staff be able to task and fill different roles.”
Vaccination efforts, however, are something that regularly continues as Jackson mentioned that talks of traveling to nursing homes and partnering with ride-sharing services are all things that have been discussed.
“We recognize that there’s a need beyond people who can come to the health department,” Jackson said. “We are not able to plan for that need at this time, but we’re open to potential solutions in the future. The large volume of calls we’re getting to come to the health department is our top priority first.”
In the end, nurse Taylor shares a sentiment of stress and eagerness for a return to normalcy that many others might also share.
“The best word to summarize this is managed stress, ha! Most days I am at work early, leave late, don’t get lunch, and am either still working or getting calls or texts on personal time. Managed stress is the best way to describe work,” Taylor said. “A big adjustment was not being able to sit and enjoy time with loved ones outside my home. I’m ready to celebrate missed holidays and birthdays with my parents and family.”