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It’s easy to forget, given all the chaos, that the District is in the middle of a critical moment in ending the coronavirus pandemic: vaccination.
Roughly four weeks ago, the D.C. government, by way of select providers, started vaccinating the first priority group, frontline health care workers. How is it going so far? According to a handful of vaccination providers—namely, Howard University Hospital, MedStar Health Hospitals, Mary’s Center, and Giant Pharmacy—the vaccination process is running relatively smoothly.
Health care workers are expressing willingness to get vaccinated so far, contrasting surveys about hesitancy. Hospitals aren’t concerned about staffing shortages related to vaccinations, as is the case in some jurisdictions that are seeing a rise in hospitalizations. And the named providers aren’t reporting major vaccine wastage. In interviews this week, executives with Howard University Hospital, MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, and MedStar Washington Hospital Center report zero waste. DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt has yet to quantify vaccine wastage, saying only that it has not been significant.
Howard University Hospital CEO Anita Jenkins says she’d asked for about 3,900 vaccines for her workers and is a quarter of the way there. “They’re limited only due to the capacity for us to deliver the vaccines, not limited in any other way,” she says. “It is voluntary and so we are doing a lot of education to make sure that our staff members understand [the vaccine].”
“We are giving it our all to make sure that we are getting these vaccines out and in people’s arms as soon as possible. If it feels as though it’s taking a little time, just please understand there’s a lot of logistics. We want to do it right. We don’t want to waste one single vial,” Jenkins adds.
The fact that locals who are not health care workers or long-term care residents and staff members got vaccinated became of great interest to the general public. This reporter fielded questions from some readers who wanted to know where to sign up to get vaccinated if they aren’t in the first two priority groups. Samir Balile, the clinical programs manager at Giant Food Pharmacies, a vaccination site where one law student got vaccinated, says the priority is to vaccinate workers like their own pharmacists or those that can’t get vaccinated at their own facility, like dentists and travel nurses.
“For the most part, this is a population subsect group who has been long awaiting. They are showing up, for sure,” says Balile. “In the case that there is remainder vaccine, of course there’s a fire drill. You have X number of hours to find somebody to receive the vaccine. So first we go to our pharmacy staff and then we go to our grocery store workers because they are too considered to be frontline workers and then at that point we are looking for patients who are elderly.”
In the ethos of minimizing vaccine waste, Balile supports the actions of the pharmacist who vaccinated the law student. (DC Health policy also backs the decision.) The stars aligned for that student, he says. He adds that Giant pharmacies do not have a public waitlist for vaccinations, contradicting what some locals are alleging. “Depending on the supply chain for phase 2, that’s a different story,” Balile says. Given the ensuing frenzy, Balile is asking people not to linger around grocery stores, given that we are still in the middle of a pandemic and should avoid crowding. This puts pharmacists in an ethical dilemma where they are having to police the vaccine, he adds.
Next week, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration is expected to open vaccine registration for the next priority group, D.C. residents 65 and older. (Bowser has underscored that Jan. 11 is a target date.) During a call with the Council on Wednesday, Nesbitt recognized how challenging it would be to balance equity and wastage, so DC Health is taking time to logistically plan for where and how providers will vaccinate the elderly population, particularly those with mobility difficulties. Nesbitt also recognized that some seniors already signed up during a soft launch of the vaccination website where DC Health hadn’t yet explained it wasn’t their turn yet. She says they’ll have to register again to actually book a date. Nesbitt encouraged residents to sign up for alerts on vaccinate.dc.gov.
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