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Local health officials frustrated with state vaccine rollout

Having the state run the vaccine distribution is frustrating local health officials.

During the Chautauqua County Health Board meeting, Christine Schuyler, county public health director and social services commissioner, said the state has restrictions on who they can provide a vaccine to.

“Local health departments across the state now can only vaccinate essential workers in Phase 1b,” she said.

The other approved vaccine providers include hospitals, urgent care centers, federally qualified health centers and pharmacies. Hospitals and the health centers are to focus on vaccinating the Phase 1a population (health care workers), although they have some flexibility. Pharmacies are only permitted to vaccinate those 65 and older.

“As you can imagine, as a local health department, we really feel we should be given the same flexibility to vaccinate anybody who is eligible, not solely having to focus on that Phase 1b essential worker population,” Schuyler said. “Having said that, we really don’t have enough vaccine to vaccinate a large portion of any of these populations.”

Thursday, the county health department vaccinated about 300 people in Dunkirk and on Friday the health department was scheduled to vaccinate around 700 people in Jamestown, which will use up all the vaccine the county has.

Schuyler said they don’t accept walk-ins at any clinics; people must register ahead of time. They also keep people on standby should they have any cancellations.

She said they work hard at only vaccinating eligible residents.

“This is a legal requirement because we did, as a county, sign an MOU – a Memorandum Of Understanding – with the state, as did every vaccine provider, that we will only vaccinate those who the state tells us to vaccinate as the priority populations. If you vaccinate outside of that, then you could be subject to fines, and you also could be removed from the vaccine provider network,” Schuyler said.

Schuyler said when the county Health Department gets vaccine, they put up a link on their website telling residents to go to the state’s scheduling system where they can register. However, they generally fill up extremely quickly.

Another frustration Schuyler has is other providers don’t always let the county know when they have vaccine and are offering clinics.

“We don’t know when the pharmacies are offering vaccination at this time, or any other providers, unless they tell us,” she said. “I know it’s very confusing, it’s very frustrating. We are getting thousands of phone calls and emails. Unfortunately, there is just not enough vaccine to go around.”

Dr. Robert Berke, who serves as the county physician, was critical of the state putting the vaccine plan together instead of the local health departments.

“We have an absolute mess that has been created,” he said. “We have the plan. We have the ability to do it and we’ve been left out of it. This makes no sense. The whole thing is absolute craziness.”

Burke noted that for several years the county Health Department has had a plan in place to deal with a communicable disease outbreak but the state has chosen to not use local health departments to coordinate vaccine distribution.

“This is so disorganized. Why complicate a very simple process? You have an agency that can deliver as many vaccines as you can in one day, centralize everything, but instead you’ve got this mess of websites, people 75 and 80 who can’t access them, people who are calling, calling, calling, trying to get in, when in fact, it could be so simple,” he said.

By comparison, Schuyler noted that West Virginia has already vaccinated 98% of their eligible population with the first dose.

“They utilized a system that people were used to relying on, and that was the local health departments and then pharmacies,” she said. “They eliminated so much the bureaucracy that unfortunately we’re stuck with in New York state.”

Even though they’re frustrated, Schuyler said they will continue to work as best as they can to get Chautauqua County residents vaccinated.

“I’m very proud of my team for coming up with solutions, doing the best they can, trying to be as prepared as we can, because if the vaccine does become widely available, we need to be ready to hit the road as soon as we are able to do so,” she said.

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