Johnson County ‘begging’ state for more COVID-19 vaccine as Phase 1 rollout continues

The most recent shipment to the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment took “several attempts at outreach to ensure we get a fair share of the vaccines," said county health director Sanmi Areola. Above, KU health system ICU nurse manager Casey Pickering receives the vaccine. Photo courtesy KU Health System.

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Johnson County health officials say the strained supply of COVID-19 vaccine coming from the state is hampering their ability to vaccinate the county’s high proportion of health care workers wanting to get doses.

Phase 1 of COVID-19 vaccination distribution was initially expected to be wrapping up by the end of January in Johnson County, but that milestone could be further off as issues with supplies persist.

Waiting for more doses from state

Based on the total raw number of doses administered compared to its neighbor to the north, Johnson County has distributed more vaccines, says county health director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D. However, he says that’s not the total picture.

Wyandotte County late last week indicated it was nearing the end of its Phase 1 distribution and ready to open up vaccinations to more members of the general public, seemingly putting it ahead of Johnson County’s pace.

Wyandotte County, though, has far fewer health care workers to vaccinate in its first phase.

Dr. Allen Greiner, medical officer for the Wyandotte County Unified Government Health Department, estimated that the 2,500 or so vaccines the county had received were enough to cover their share of Phase 1.

In comparison, Johnson County as of Friday, had received upwards of 16,000 doses and administered slightly more than 7,000.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokesperson Kristi Zears said the state is prioritizing its vaccine shipments based on CDC recommendations. Above a KU Health System worker holds a tray of vaccines. Photo courtesy KU Health System.

But Areola said Johnson County is in a much different situation with roughly 25,000 health care workers that need to be vaccinated here. He said so far, only a fraction of the doses the county needs to vaccinate all those in Phase 1 have been shipped to Johnson County by the state.

“The state needs to send vaccines to the county [at a rate] that is proportionate to our population and proportionate to the number of health care workers that we have,” Areola said.

JCDHE says it has received three shipments of vaccines from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment totaling roughly 6,300 doses. The county has also received vaccines shared by local health systems, like University of Kansas Medical Center and Children’s Mercy Hospital.

The single biggest source of vaccines for the county have come from the Olathe-based Health Partnership Clinic, which has given JCDHE more than 7,000 doses.

If more doses don’t come from the state, and soon, Areola said, “It will cripple our efforts because we still have quite a few people on the list.”

The most recent shipment, which arrived last week, took “several attempts at outreach to ensure we get a fair share of the vaccines” before it arrived, Areola said.

“We don’t have the vaccine. We spent the entire last week literally begging for vaccines, calling the state and reaching out to them,” Areola said. “The limiting variable is that the state just needs to provide more vaccines to Johnson.”

The state’s response

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Kristi Zears, director of communications for KDHE said the state designed its vaccine distribution plan based on recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while also taking into account guidance from the Kansas Coronavirus Advisory Council.

“The populations prioritized were based on the populations at highest risk for COVID-19 with an attempt to maximize benefit, minimize harm, and strive for equity, justice, and fairness,” Zears said. “But the bottom-line is that we want to get as many vaccines into people’s arms as quickly as possible, to stop the spread of the virus.”

According to the CDC, Kansas has steadily risen in state-by-state rankings of vaccine distribution in recent weeks. After starting January with one of the lowest rates of vaccines administered, Kansas now ranks in the upper half of states with 3,356 doses administered per 100,000 residents.

That’s higher than Missouri’s, yet lower than other neighboring states like Colorado, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Looking toward future phases

And what about the next phases? Last week, JCDHE released a survey for individuals eligible for the second phase to sign up to receive the vaccine, and according to a special edition of the health department’s daily COVID-19 updates, about 48,000 people are already in line.

People eligible for the vaccine in Phase 2 include:

  • Those 65 and older

  • Some critical and essential employees

  • Individuals in congregate settings

  • People eligible in Phase 1 that didn’t receive the vaccine

In the meantime, Areola is hopeful that, as more counties and localities get through their first phase of distribution, more vaccines will become available at the state level for Johnson County to catch up.

“If it’s coming at this pace, it will take a while — we just don’t have enough vaccines to finish this [phase],” he said.

The infrastructure and logistics are already in place to administer doses in future phases — the only thing that’s lacking, Areola says, is the supply of vaccines.

Zears said as future vaccination phases roll out, “counties will have the ability to flex depending on their own local supply of vaccine, the number of at-risk individuals in their community, and local circumstances.”

To register for Phase 2 in Johnson County, click here.