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Private vaccine providers wait for supply, health official says "be prepared"

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

With federal shipments of COVID-19 vaccines to Oklahoma expected to increase after the Tuesday announcement of Operation Warp Speed releasing second doses to states, the number of providers administering the shots locally could significantly increase in coming weeks.

For southern Oklahoma residents, that means 91 additional locations to receive a vaccine, but the timeline for the additional pandemic providers to begin offering the vaccine to eligible priority groups remains unclear. 

Oklahoma State Department of Health Deputy Commissioner Keith Reed said that vaccines currently being distributed to those eligible under the state’s vaccination plan are scheduled and administered through the state health department. Last fall, private health care providers were invited to enroll as vaccine providers and Reed said on Wednesday that 1,367 of them have been approved.

Carter County is expected to host 20 of those providers which will likely include local hospitals, pharmacies and medical clinics, according to OSDH regional Public Information Officer Julie Williamson.

“We have been told there will be a search feature added when those providers receive vaccines. As far as we know, those individual providers will be able to use their own methods for scheduling and will not be required to use the state scheduling portal,” Williamson said in a Wednesday email.

Currently, the only locations available for eligible residents to receive the vaccine are at OSDH locations, or PODS, and events. Williamson said weekly events in Ardmore, Ada and Duncan have seen higher turn out this week compared to last week and vaccinate thousands across southern Oklahoma.

Vaccine recipients wait in a socially distanced area for at least 15 minutes after receiving a shot at the Ardmore Convention Center Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, to be monitored for any adverse reactions. The weekly events in Ardmore, Ada and Duncan remain among the few locations for eligible residents to receive a COVID-19 vaccine from the state health department.

Reed was questioned by reporters on Wednesday about Oklahomans having difficulties using the online scheduling system. He said the state has responded to reports of the 211 COVID-19 hotline providing little help to callers with vaccine questions by having those calls sent directly to OSDH staff. 

While this staff can walk callers through the online scheduling process, Reed reiterated that appointment cannot be scheduled over the phone. For someone without access to the online portal, 211 operators are collecting contact information and sending it to the resident’s county health department to coordinate appointments.

He also warned that some Oklahomans may be targeted by scams offering vaccine appointments for a fee. Reed said that the state has not authorized any outside agencies to schedule or administer vaccines for money.

Southern Oklahoma Library System spokesperson Emily Stinson said branches have already seen patrons request help with the online scheduling portal and welcomes residents to utilize computer resources to sign up for appointments through the state’s scheduling system.

"We want the public to know we are available to assist them with the online application process for vaccinations or with any other needs. We are staying up to date with current information related to COVID-19 and the vaccinations and our goal is to provide accurate information to those seeking facts and data related to their health," Stinson said in a Wednesday email.

Despite a federal announcement on Tuesday that Operation Warp Speed would stop withholding second doses from states, Reed said that he is unsure what that will exactly mean for weekly shipments of the vaccines.

“What I don’t know is how much vaccine is truly out there and will be provided to us based on their revised system of allocation,” he said. “From what they have informed us, they will continue to make adjustments in our shipments based on our ability to vaccinate. Is that enough to keep up with us and give us what we want? I don’t know that.”

Oklahoma is expected to receive an additional 48,475 doses next week and Reed said that wasted doses have been extremely rare in the state. 

Reed said that Oklahoma is ready to distribute more vaccines than are currently being sent to the state and that many federal recommendations to states have already been implemented. While public health officials hope to see the number of vaccines sent to Oklahoma soon increase, Reed had a message for those who have signed up to administer the shots.

“Yes, we are prepared for large volumes to come into the state and I would go ahead and put the word out to our pandemic providers that have signed up: be prepared. I can’t guarantee you that you will get vaccines in the next week or the next two weeks, but please be ready. Be thinking about your plans to vaccinate the population you take care of, because if all goes well, we will be engaging you all very soon.”