Some Johnson County residents are going to rural Kansas to get vaccinated — here’s why

KU Health vaccine

Some Johnson Countians who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine are traveling to rural Kansas to receive it. One Prairie Village resident went to Junction City — and received a call from Johnson County about setting up her COVID-19 vaccine appointment one week before her second dose would be administered two hours away. File photo.

Sue Wildgen, a Prairie Village resident in her 70s, began looking for COVID-19 vaccination appointments in early February.

Several of her friends on the other side of the state line in Missouri received their first doses in early January, and despite filling out Johnson County’s COVID-19 vaccine interest survey and searching for appointments in the metro, Wildgen said her search for weeks was unsuccessful.

Then, she heard that Walmart would begin offering vaccines at select locations, and she began looking for appointments across Kansas.

So, like some other frustrated Johnson Countians, Wildgen, her husband Paul and fellow Prairie Village residents Beth and Lloyd Koelker, took to the road. The foursome made a two hour drive to Junction City in Geary County, just west of Manhattan, to get vaccinated.

“We were thrilled, but also disappointed that we had to go all the way to Junction City when you’re reading here about the metro area — especially on the Missouri side — with all of these sites opening up,” Wildgen said.

‘Totally frustrating’

The Wildgens and Koelkers are all over the age of 70, and became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations when Kansas moved to Phase 2 of its vaccine rollout in late January.

Phase 2 allows for the vaccination of people 65 and older, but Johnson County began Phase 2 vaccinations focused on individuals 80 and older, leaving the Wildgens and Koelkers (and tens of thousands of other Johnson Countians in their age range) waiting.

Wildgen said she reached her breaking point after receiving a call from the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment the second week of February.

When she returned the call, Wildgen said she was put on hold as caller number seven and waited for more than an hour — just to receive an automated message asking her to call back due to technical difficulties.

After reaching out to the board of county commissioners about her experience, Wildgen said she received three different calls from JCDHE with three different reasonings for why she hadn’t been able to connect on the initial call.

County health officials told Wildgen to fill out vaccine interest surveys on more than half a dozen websites, including the county’s form, as well as those for local health care systems and retail pharmacies.

That’s when she decided to expand her search outside of the Kansas City area.

“To me, it was totally frustrating,” she said. “It seemed unorganized, especially here in Johnson County. We could not understand why they had us fill out a survey with all this information, but yet, it was going nowhere.”

Geary County Health Department Director Tammy Von Busch said the county follows the state’s phased vaccination plan, which allows for eligible Kansans to get vaccinated anywhere they can within the state.

“We have an online sign-up list, and if people sign-up or call to get scheduled, we go ahead and schedule them,” Von Busch said. “We don’t ask them what county they’re in or turn them away because they’re not in our county.”

That will also apply to people who become eligible for vaccines when the state moves to Phases 3 and 4 on Monday, March 22.

JCDHE hopes for additional vaccine allocations

Johnson County health director Sanmi Areola, Ph.D., said he understands residents like Wildgen have been frustrated about the short supply of vaccine availability in the county.

“We know our residents want to be vaccinated, and that is what we want as well,” Areola said. “As we receive doses, we get them into the arms of people who live and work here as quickly as we can.”

JCDHE director Sanmi Areola said if residents aren’t receiving calls for their COVID-19 vaccine appointment, it’s because no vaccine is available at this time. Above, Areola receives the COVID-19 vaccine. File photo.

The county hopes to be allocated additional doses in the near future, but if residents aren’t being contacted for appointments — even if they may be eligible and have filled out the interest form — Areola said it means not enough vaccines are available yet.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment did not immediately respond to inquiries specifically related to Johnson County’s vaccine availability.

Johnson County health officials have expressed their own frustrations over not getting a proportionate share of vaccines from KDHE. In the initial weeks of Phase 2 vaccinations, local health officials said Johnson County was getting only 14% of doses in Kansas, though Johnson makes up 21% of the state’s population.

Still, Areola encourages Johnson Countians to register their interest in getting vaccinated by filling out interest forms from the county, local health care systems, pharmacies and other vaccinators.

The county uses information from the interest forms to contact people who want to receive a COVID-19 vaccination when doses become available, he said, and they go down through the order in which people filled out the form.

Vaccine supply ‘not where [Kansas]’ needs it to be

KDHE has confirmed to the Shawnee Mission Post that so long as a resident is eligible under the state’s phased vaccination plan, they are able to cross county lines to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Post has received tips from readers that some rural counties are vaccinating anyone, even if they do not meet current eligibility requirements. In February, the Stanton County Health Department in western Kansas advertised a vaccination event on Facebook at which “anyone 18 years old and over” was invited to receive a shot.

KDHE director of communications Kristi Zears said the state can withhold future doses if counties are not following the state’s phased vaccination plan.

Zears said Kansans who have yet to be vaccinated should remain patient, and double-check where you fall in the prioritization plan here. Those who are in the latter phases, she said, should continue with COVID-19 prevention protocols including practicing good hygiene and wearing masks.

“Patience continues to be key,” Zears said. “The vaccine supply is increasing slightly which is good news, but it’s not where we need it to be yet.”

As for Wildgen, she said she, her husband and the Koelkers are glad they traveled to be vaccinated despite the frustration that came along with the search process.

A few weeks after getting her first dose in Junction City, Wildgen said she received a call from JCDHE the week of March 8 asking her if she wanted to sign up for a vaccination slot here.

She declined, knowing she’d return to Junction City for her second dose by Friday, March 19.

“We’re a month ahead, basically, compared to signing up and going in for a shot here in Johnson County,” Wildgen said.