Vaccine distribution continues in southern Oklahoma

Michael D. Smith

Vaccines for COVID-19 have been rolling out across southern Oklahoma for nearly a week and more are expected in coming weeks. With recent emergency approval of two vaccines paving the way for the drugs to be distributed to front line workers fighting the pandemic, another group of health care workers in our region has been coordinating a massive distribution campaign.

The first vial of COVID-19 vaccine used at Mercy Hospital Ardmore sits empty Wednesday. Mercy Hospital Ardmore President Daryle Voss, who watched as the first doses were administered, said this vial would likely be kept by the hospital as a memento.

Chris Mann has been a public health specialist for the Oklahoma State Department of Health for 26 years and has worn numerous hats during his career. He said the general public in Jefferson County and Stephens County may know him as the local health inspector, but other roles included working as a liaison between emergency managers.

Now Mann is working as the COVID-19 vaccine project manager for the nine counties in the OSDH south-central region, with responsibilities that include establishing vaccine providers and coordinating transportation and administration. He and other public health workers, who have already undertaken disease testing and contact tracing, are now taking on the distribution of vaccines.

“It’s not easy. We have a good bunch. If you have a good group you're working with, it makes it a lot easier,” he said by phone on Friday.

Oklahoma implemented the first of four phases of a vaccination plan last week after receiving about 33,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with doctors at Mercy Hospital Ardmore receiving the first of local doses on Wednesday. Mann said the initial shipment allocated 975 doses for the local region and includes the second booster being shipped and administered about three weeks later.

According to the OSDH vaccination plan, the first phase gets almost 158,000 vaccines to staff providing direct care to COVID-19 patients, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, paramedics, and public health workers directly associated with pandemic mitigation and control. Mann said he worked mostly with hospitals in the region in preparation of vaccine distribution to establish priority lists of who would receive the first vaccines.

A Mercy Hospital Ardmore official last week said the number of staff that could be vaccinated in this first round could vary because vials could provide up to seven doses. Guidance from the Food and Drug Administration confirmed that vials marked for five doses may provide up to two additional doses.

"At this time, given the public health emergency, FDA is advising that it is acceptable to use every full dose obtainable (the sixth, or possibly even a seventh) from each vial, pending resolution of the issue," read a Dec. 16 tweet from the agency.

While federal and state agencies worked directly with drug manufacturers, Mann said shipments went from drug makers directly to five main distribution sites in Oklahoma. Vaccines were then shipped to five other secondary sites for further distribution. One of those main sites is in the local region but officials have declined to identify the locations, citing security concerns.

A nurse at Mercy Hospital Ardmore prepares to administer the first COVID-19 vaccine to a coworker Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Dozens of front line workers will receive the first of two doses through Saturday with the second round expected to arrive locally in about four weeks.

While Oklahoma has received a specific allotment, Mann said federal agencies will work from separate allotments. Those receiving the vaccine are given a immunization record from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and staff follows up with recipients daily. 

State health commissioner Dr. Lance Frye said during a Friday media briefing that recipients can also receive reminders to get their second dose in three to four weeks. 

The second shipment of Pfizer vaccines is expected to be delivered to Oklahoma today. Over 66,000 doses of the recently approved Moderna vaccine arrived in Oklahoma on Sunday and distribution in 27 sites across the state is expected to conclude today.

“I know in our district we should be getting about 6,600 doses of Moderna, that’s what we ordered for the first shipment,” said Mann.

Distribution of the Moderna vaccine is expected to be easier than the Pfizer because of temperature requirements and viability windows. Mann said the Moderna version must be stored at about 5 degrees Fahrenheit and, once thawed, must be administered within 30 days. Comparatively, he said the Pfizer must be stored closer to -100 degrees Fahrenheit and must be administered within five days of being thawed.

Phase two of the OSDH vaccination plan, expected to begin sometime in January, will cover additional medical staff, first responders, K-12 school teachers, and residents over 65 years old. According to Keith Reed, deputy commissioner for OSDH, vaccines in the early phases are designated only for Oklahomans or those within defined risk categories who are working in the state.

“Later in the plan, as we reach Phase 3 and then Phase 4 — which is an indicator of widespread vaccine availability — we will consider opening it up to anyone that needs it in order to maximize the impact of reducing COVID-19 spread in communities,” said Reed on Friday.

The dates of the final two phases remain unclear. According to OSDH guidance, vaccine availability will determine when the third phase of distribution will begin.

Mann described multiple moving parts that have been underway for months in preparation for widespread vaccination in the state. He mentioned numerous health care facilities, the Chickasaw Nation, and the Oklahoma National Guard who have all coordinated with one another leading up to the vaccine rollouts.

Because of the massive amount of manpower and resources dedicated to vaccine distribution, Mann said other aspects of public health are being impacted. While some aspects outside of pandemic control must continue, like WIC nutrition assistance, he said other parts of the job must be put on hold.

“Routine inspections have been cut way back, so there is a cost,” he said, adding that specific complaints or required inspections often take priority. Other parts of public health that are directly related to the pandemic are also being impacted by the vaccine rollout.

“As we’ve moved into the vaccine, we’ve had to cut back the contact tracing. It’s still important, the testing is still important, but our number one priority has become vaccines,” he said.

Mann clearly expressed a desire to get back to normal. While the gravity of the pandemic continues to be shouldered by those in health care, he knows that his peers in public health are making headway in shutting down the pandemic.

“I'm very proud of all our staff. Of course I’m concerned about them. We realize the importance of our role and we want to make sure that we serve the people in our region as best as we can,” he said.