Veterans Center receives vaccines from state allotment, sidesteps federal delays

Michael D. Smith
A retired military tank stands watch in front of the Oklahoma Veterans Center in Ardmore. Delays in receiving vaccinations from federal stockpiles led state lawmakers, VA officials, and state health department officials to allocate vaccines for the Ardmore facility from state resources.

Over a month after a COVID-19 outbreak started at the Ardmore Veterans Center and has since claimed at least 27 lives, vaccinations rolled out to staff and residents on Saturday. According to state health officials and the head of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs, plans under the federal framework to vaccinate long-term care facilities were taking far too long.

State lawmakers and a top VA official came to Ardmore on Thursday to address the outbreak at the local Oklahoma Veterans Center. State veterans affairs director Joel Kentsil said some in attendance were upset that residents at the Ardmore facility were unable to receive vaccines while some of their family members were getting vaccinated by OSDH.

While OSDH receives its own dedicated allotment of vaccines on a weekly basis for distribution, some long-term care facilities are among the entities that receive vaccine allotments from federal supplies.

Contracts under Operation Warp Speed direct retail pharmacy chains Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy to provide vaccines to VA facilities in Oklahoma from those federal allotments. Kentsil said on Thursday that his department contracted with CVS Pharmacy but was unsure what the delay has been for six of the seven centers across the state.

 “As it’s turned out, they’re going relatively slow and, with the exception of the Talihina center, they've not delivered vaccines yet to any of the veterans centers in Oklahoma,” Kentsil said.

The plan to use state resources rather than wait for federal resources came about this week. Kentsil said multiple conversations with state Rep. Tammy Townley and state Sen. Frank Simpson resulted in the vaccines coming to the veterans center in Ardmore.

Todd Larkin, a local Carter County resident and veterans advocate, addresses Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director Joel Kinstel and State Rep. Tammy Townley at a meeting Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.

“We are just so thankful to be able to serve our veterans and help protect them, said Mendy Spohn, a regional director for the Oklahoma State Department of Health on in a Thursday statement.

According to that statement, the Saturday event was closed to the public.

Oklahoma has recorded 324,875 cases of COVID-19 after 4,289 new cases were reported on Saturday, according to OSDH data. The death toll reported by OSDH grew to 2,738 after 35 new deaths linked to COVID-19 were reported on Saturday.

Carter County has recorded 3,688 cases of the disease after 134 new cases were reported on Saturday. The number of active COVID-19 cases in the county surged to 942 on Saturday, 300 more than Wednesday and the highest number recorded in a single day.

Carter County has recorded more new cases in the first nine days of January than nearly every other month of the pandemic. January has already accounted for more new cases of COVID-19 than the first seven months of the pandemic combined.

The true number of cases in Oklahoma is likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick. OSDH reports of confirmed cases and deaths linked to COVID-19 are known to be delayed by days or even weeks.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.