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MCHD Planning Ahead for Continued Vaccine Rollout

The McLean County Board of Health meets Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.

The continuing COVID pandemic, and the challenges facing the health department because of it, were the focus of Wednesday’s McLean County Board of Health meeting. 

The department is developing long-term plans beyond spring, but still is unable to plan out for vaccine quantities for more than a week at a time, said administrator Jessica McKnight.

MCHD learns Wednesday or Thursday how many doses will arrive the following week. And on Friday, staff learns if vaccine for second doses -- to be given a month after a first dose -- will be shipped the following week. So, it’s quite a complicated system.  

The difficulty in planning, and related problems with people being able to sign up at the MCHD website, has drawn critics throughout the community. But on Wednesday, board members praised McKnight and her staff for continued dedication to the issues.

 “Getting the appointment is the big trick,” said board member Sonja Reece. But once at a clinic, the operation runs smoothly, she said, speaking from her own experience at the clinic at Grossinger Motors Arena. Reece noted several county residents relayed they'd too had positive experiences at the clinics.

“Uncertainty from week to week of how much vaccine we're going to get, the process of scheduling? That's our learning curve. The giving the vaccine?  That's what we know," said McKnight.

A continued concern of many McLean County residents is disparities in vaccine distribution among Illinois’ counties, said board member Susan Schafer, adding she's reached out to state Sen. Jason Barickman about this disparity, and is awaiting his response.

“I don’t see this getting better right now,” said Schafer, who represents the board of health at McLean County Board meetings. She said she’s heard there that constituents are very concerned with the vaccine rollout.

On Wednesday, a new curve ball came McKnight’s way. 

“The announcement of 1B being expanded today was news to me," she said. 

During a Wednesday morning news conference, Gov. JB Pritzker announced 1B eligibility will expand beginning Feb. 25 to include people suffering from chronic conditions such as diabetes, cancer, lung disease or heart disease. 

But even without adding that group, if vaccine allocations remain the same, it still would take three to four months to distribute the COVID vaccine to the current 1A and 1B eligible residents, according to board materials.

“I’m kind of disappointed in the state again,” said Schafer, referring to the county-to-county disparities for first phases of distribution, and the news of expanded eligibility pools in the midst of that.

McKnight said she already worries each week the state will send enough vaccine for appointments already scheduled for the following week. So, she's concerned about opening the 1B eligibility. But Pritzker did note Wednesday that he's broadening the window based on more vaccine doses expected to become available. 

For the long-term outlook, McKnight said MCHD is in the process of shifting some contractual positions to become health department employees, including some COVID call center staff and contact tracers. MCHD also is looking into the possibility of extending the call center's hours.

“We’re starting the assessments of looking at where we are right now.  What would we need past May? What do we need to start getting in place now? said McKnight.

And last week the department applied for a $400,000 Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) grant to help manage its mass vaccination program.

Besides MCHD clinics, when supply is available, the department also distributes vaccines to doctor’s offices, college campuses, and federally qualified health centers.  McKnight said they rely on partners to help because of the thousands in McLean County still needing the vaccine. 

Board member Cory Tello praised McKnight and her staff for continuing to handle all the normal business of the health department, in addition to its COVID response. For a full year now, the MCHD has handled a completely new workload on top of its normal responsibilities, she said.

“You’re building everything as you’re flying it,” said Tello, about developing COVID response plans. “We know there have been frustrations with this,” but everyone is giving their best.

Board member Rob Kohlhase echoed Tello’s comments, saying McKnight and her staff are doing an amazing job handling everything thrown at them.

IDPH grant for vaccine program

More than half of the $400,000 Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH)  non-competitive grant, about $220,000, would help MCHD to staff clinics, and handle logistics, according to board materials. 

For MCHD-sponsored clinics, it takes about 25 people to vaccinate roughly 300 people during a three-hour period, said board president Carla Pohl.

More than $43,000 is tagged to fund a system to push out text and email messages about clinics and vaccine updates. The grant also covers vaccine storage, handling and distribution to various clinic partners in the community. 

Outreach to Black and Latino populations

Tackling vaccine hesitancy -- especially among the Black and Latino populations -- is an area the board of health and MCHD staff also are working on. Upcoming events, and a community survey are in the works, said  Tello.

“We have a group that has been very diligently working toward how to get information to the community -- the best possible information, and easy to digest,” she said, noting the group is working to dispel myths about the vaccine.

The board of health is building a community network to help reach the Black and Latino county residents, with  representatives from the local chapter of the NAACP, Western Avenue Community Center, and several churches, she said. 

A virtual town hall is planned for 5:30 p.m. Feb. 22, she said. An immunologist will lead the presentation about the safety of the vaccine, and board member Judy Buchanan said several local doctors of color also will take questions during the event.

MCHD has been working on a survey going out to community organizations, to learn about barriers and concerns about vaccine hesitancy.

Mental health

Tello said county residents needing information about COVID or the vaccine should visit the MCHD website, or call 309-888-5600 to reach the department's COVID call center.

But for mental health concerns, including those related to the pandemic, residents should call 211. That connects them with PATH Crisis Center. When it comes to issues such as stress, substance abuse, fear, anxiety, and depression PATH staff and volunteers are on call, she said.

PATH Executive Director Karen Zangerle told Tello the agency has seen increased calls during the past year of pandemic. Zangerle said PATH does have the capacity to meet the higher call volume. But people may need to wait on the lines a bit longer, according to Tello.

Call center supervisor

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, the board unanimously approved a contract for the newly drafted position of COVID call center supervisor. The position previously was considered a team leader. Now, the full-time position, which pays $25.45 an hour, reflects added responsibilities of supervising call center staff, handling staff schedules, and assisting people who lack computer access with making vaccine appointments.

Board members Andrew Held, Dr. Richard Ginetti, and Dr. Alan Ginzburg were absent from the meeting.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.
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