When the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced last week that adults age 65 and older would be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine Monday, Jan. 25, the phone systems at the Douglas County Health Department crashed.
Hundreds of people have called each day, asking to get the shot. Many who call are angry, said Douglas County Health Officer Kathy Ronchi. They want to know why there are no large vaccination clinics set up.
It’s a case of supply and demand.
The county received 150 doses of the vaccine on Jan. 13, and another 250 last week. Per state guidelines, the initial doses were targeted at people who provide direct health care, such as nurses, dentists and EMTs. In addition to that priority category, county staff have begun to vaccinate police and firefighters, who fall into the second priority tier.
“I think we have a handful remaining of the general firefighters, along with police officers. We have almost all of the sheriff’s (office), almost all of (the Superior Police Department) done,” Ronchi said.
As of Friday, Jan. 22, a total of 2,286 people had been vaccinated in Douglas County, she said. That includes vaccines given to nursing home residents over the last two weeks by CVS and Walgreens pharmacies and doses given to medical personnel and EMTs at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Hospital-Superior.
At Harmony House, an assisted living facility in Superior, half the residents and staff got their first shot of the vaccine Monday, Jan. 25.
"I know for me personally, it's going to give me a little sigh of relief. It's been so scary. The first few months I don't know if I slept much because you just worry," said assistant administrator Tami Susens. "You've always had the lives of 16 people in your hands, but this just took it to a whole other level."
But it's hard to explain to residents, Susens said, that they still need to keep COVID-19 protocol in place for the foreseeable future, as the shot won't hit maximum potency until 30 to 60 days after the second dose is administered.
The second half of the staff and residents are set to get their first dose on Feb. 22, when the first group gets their second shot. That means the population won't be fully vaccinated until the end of March. Owner/administrator Sharon Kotter said she plans to talk with the pharmacy about possibly squeezing their second half, roughly 20 people, in earlier.
"I was happy we were finally gotten to,"' Kotter said, but she's frustrated with what she sees as a slow rollout of the vaccine in Douglas County.
A former Superior mayor, Kotter took her concerns to the state and county level, contacting Rep. Nick Milroy's (D-South Range) office and calling the Douglas County line. She said it doesn't appear that Wisconsin had a good plan.
"I don't understand why they didn't move faster," Kotter said.
There are more than 8,000 adults age 65 and older in the county who are now eligible to get vaccines, per the state health department. This week, the Douglas County Health Department was allotted 150 doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
Ronchi said the department has plans to hold large drive-thru or walk-up clinics at sites throughout the county. The venues and volunteers are lined up.
“It’s literally just we need to get the vaccine,” Ronchi said.
The county isn’t the only provider being overwhelmed by demand.
St. Luke’s Mariner Medical Clinic in Superior will host its first vaccine clinics this week. Less than 15 minutes after the announcement went out, St. Luke’s spokeswoman Melissa Burlaga sent a revised announcement. The clinic would not be taking calls for a waitlist for the vaccine due to the high volume of calls it had already received, she said.
“They have three days scheduled,” Ronchi said. “And before they even announced they were taking appointments, so many people were calling that they already filled up enough for two weeks within that first couple hours.”
Ronchi is asking people to have grace and patience. The county and other providers are working with what they have.
“I want people to know that we hear them and we care about it,” the public health officer said. “Our hands are tied until we actually get the vaccine.”
If people have already called the county to get on the list for a vaccine, they shouldn’t call again. Those who haven’t called may want to wait for a week or so to sign up.
“Nobody’s going to miss an opportunity,” Ronchi said.
The Pfizer vaccine, which is the one the county has been receiving, must be distributed within five days. Larger allotments of vaccine are expected to roll out to Douglas County by mid-February, Ronchi said.
The county has a solid team working together, but additional volunteers may be needed for quick set-up and distribution of vaccines. Retired health care providers can sign up through the Wisconsin Emergency Assistance Volunteer Registry if they’d like to help, Ronchi said.
Demand for the vaccine is huge, but demand for testing appears to be shrinking. At the most recent Wisconsin National Guard testing event in Superior on Jan. 15, only 20 people turned out. The Friday, Jan. 29, event may be the last.
“If we don’t have a good turnout, I don’t know that I'll request those services again,” Ronchi said.