Health

With coronavirus vaccination opportunities in Kentucky expected to ramp up in the coming weeks, health care experts and government officials are assessing the distribution process and potential new challenges.

Since becoming available in December, more than 12 million Americans have received a vaccine shot, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. About 39% of all doses distributed nationally have been administered.

Kentucky is ahead of the national average, administering 51.7% of the state’s doses so far to about 175,000 people. Dr. Paul McKinney, a professor and associate dean at University of Louisville’s School of Public Health and Information Sciences, said the state is finding success in that aspect.

“We’re not quite where we want to be yet, but we’re pushing towards that goal and, hopefully, can sustain that effort until we get a very large number of people immunized,” McKinney said.

The percentage of the state’s population who have received a first dose also outpaces the national average. Doses of the vaccine have been administered to 3,911 per 100,000 Kentuckians, which ranks 23rd in the country.

At Thursday’s coronavirus briefing, Gov. Andy Beshear said he wants to see even more improvement moving forward.

“Last week, we did almost twice the number of vaccinations as the week before,” Beshear said. “In fact, we did more vaccinations last week than we received from the federal government in doses… This means that we are on track as we ramp to meeting that goal of 90% of all doses – and maybe even exceeding that goal – into people’s arms seven days from when it’s received.”

Vaccinations at long-term care facilities are lagging in the state, relative to other groups receiving “tier 1a” priority, such as health care workers. Kentucky’s state program has administered 63.1% of the doses it’s received, compared to just 29.4% at long-term care facilities.

But the latter is a federal program that’s being conducted by CVS and Walgreens.

“While we are pushing, coordinating and tracking, we’re not in direct control of the speed of this piece,” Beshear said. “But it needs to go fast, and it needs to go faster.”

Other states, like West Virginia, have boosted the vaccination process by enlisting the help of the National Guard. West Virginia leads the country in many categories related to vaccination.

McKinney believes Kentucky could find similar success with guardsmen and other support systems, though that’s not currently in the plan.

“All the authorities that I’ve heard on the national level have said this is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” he said. “We need to bring every available person on board who’s trained and capable and equipped to participate in the effort… If we get all these folks involved, it will take less time overall to deliver a vaccine.”

Kentucky has partnered with corporate entities as it prepares to enter phases 1b and 1c of the vaccination plan, including non-medical first responders, educators and people over the age of 70.

Kroger will operate regional drive-thru vaccination sites to assist in that effort starting Feb. 1. Louisville Metro Health is also launching efforts for those groups next week, utilizing its drive-thru site at Broadbent Arena and partnerships with area hospital systems.

But the obstacles that come with broadening vaccination efforts extend beyond having a site to administer shots.

“Right now, we’re quickly passing the point where our ability to vaccinate is greater than the supply that we have coming in,” Mayor Greg Fischer said at a press conference Friday. “So number one is increasing the supply.”

Aside from funding and workforce issues, others see a need to improve communication capabilities and outreach efforts.

University of Kentucky spokesperson Jay Blanton said ensuring those in tiers 1b and 1c are informed about vaccine opportunities will be more difficult than the captive audiences of health care workers and long-term care residents.

“When you’re talking about healthcare employees, you know who they are, you have in the databases, you’re able to reach out to them and work with them and get them in and vaccinate them,” Blanton said. “But even when you start to go into other health care providers in the community, you can target lists of groups… But that might not have every doctor or provider within those groups that you’re targeting.”

Similar problems are expected when it comes to contacting older individuals.

About 400,000 Kentuckians are 70 or older. More than 100,000 people in that age group live in Louisville, 30,000 of which are already on the interest list for the vaccine.

Dr. SarahBeth Hartlage, the city’s Associate Medical Director, said some older people may struggle to sign up for a vaccine online or through the hotline. She said family members can register on behalf of older loved ones, to ease the process.

“You’ll need to have their birthdate, insurance information, that sort of thing available to you,” she said. “Transportation is an issue for some people, but we’re working with partners across the community to help make that possible. And the other issue with the group of 70 [and older] is just that there are so many of them.”

Hartlage anticipates about 10,000 appointments per week for those 70 and older, once that group starts receiving doses. Many of those doses will be handled by hospitals.

“It’s difficult to know who’s going to get to go first in that group and how long it will take us to get through them, because it’s a large group,” Hartlage said.

Those 70 and older can now sign up for tests here. Appointments will start Tuesday. Hartlage said it will probably take at least three months to finish tier 1b vaccinations. Educators will be finished on a more accelerated schedule, but it will take time to get through the elderly population.

The timeline for tier 1c individuals –  people 60 and older, those with high-risk health conditions and essential workers – differs between the state and Louisville. The state says it will start tier 1c vaccinations on Feb. 1, but these groups aren’t expected to start until April or May in the city’s distribution plan.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.