Huntsville’s health care providers can feel a moment of hope as vaccines have begun rolling out to Phase 1 recipients since the start of the year. However, the pandemic remains far from over.
“Everyone was just elated. I told (the staff members), ‘there’s hope in this box,’” said Lane Aiena, family practitioner at Huntsville Family Health. “We’re just starting to see the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel and we are just so happy. It’s been a very difficult 10 months for the medical community.”
The toll that the pandemic has taken on local clinics and hospitals has been stressful and overwhelming for staff members. Aiena recalls times that Huntsville Family Health experienced two rows of cars leading out to the road that needed to get swabbed at the clinic, and oftentimes during the peaks of the pandemic, they were getting back five positive tests a day.
Walker County fell behind the rest of the state in receiving its vaccine allocations that had gone out weeks before arriving in the area. Aiena had to reach out to news sources, the Texas Academy of Family Physicians and the Texas Medical Association to fight for vaccines and finally received 300 allocations of the Moderna vaccine for Huntsville Family Health just in time for the new year.
“We had to really rattle the cage before we got anything, so we were very fortunate and grateful for the 300, but there’s still a long way to go to meet demand,” Aiena said.
After receiving the first round of vaccine allocations on Dec. 28, the clinic began distributing to Phase 1A recipients the next day including their entire staff.
“We got our front desk to call all of the local clinics that we could think of and told them we got it. We were bringing them in 20 to 30 a day, giving shots in arms, and by the end of the day on Dec. 31, we had moved on to 1B,” Aiena said.
Since the new year, around 100 Phase 1B recipients have been vaccinated by the clinic so far. However, it doesn’t meet the growing demand from not only the community, but individuals from across the region.
“We had to shut down our wait-list on Monday morning, we were getting calls from as far as Montgomery County. It was locking up our phone system, people couldn’t get through,” Aiena said. “Last week when we were calling 1A’s, it didn’t really get around too much that we had the vaccine, but over the long weekend, word travels fast in a small community and we got calls from every single surrounding county. All of them.”
By Monday morning, Huntsville Family Health had over 500 individuals on a waitlist for a 300 person allocation whose waitlist was already maxed out.
Following close behind Huntsville Family Health, Huntsville Memorial Hospital received an allocation of 600 Moderna vaccines and began distribution among its staff members on Dec. 29. As of Friday, the hospital has used 75 percent of their allocations, vaccinating 44 percent of the hospital’s staff members. More are expected to sign up for vaccinations next week as staff members increasingly weigh the benefits.
“They’re human, everybody’s got a little bit of concern just because it was rapidly put out, but we were glad to see that 44 percent of our staff would take it right off the bat without any real extra education. But we are working with all of the staff on educating them and getting them whatever resources they need to make that informed decision for themselves,” said Linda Lawson, chief nursing officer at Huntsville Memorial Hospital.
Aiena has assisted in answering common concerns among healthcare staff and the public when it comes to the vaccine that was seemingly appeared overnight, however, work has been underway since before the last SARS outbreak in 2008 and expedited recently for the demand.
“The truth of the matter is we’ve been looking at mRNA vaccines since before 2005 … the fact that we had the technology that’s just now ready for prime time is really fortuitous timing,” Aiena said.
Once he discusses with people how it works, Aiena finds that people are more likely to get on board with being vaccinated.
“The hesitancy comes with the vaccine that was done very quickly, so there’s some very good questions, but if you really take a deep dive into this, I’m really confident with this vaccine, both in safety and in efficacy,” he said.
Those who received their first round of shots have already been approved to receive a second round, however approval for another, larger allotment of first round shots is still in hiatus.
“Once they get the second dose, I think (morale) is going to improve even more, once we feel like a lot of our staff is fully protected,” Huntsville Memorial Hospital registered nurse Andrea Jaeger said.
However, the virus still poses a risk to vaccinated healthcare workers until at least 70 percent of the population is vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
“I think everybody is hopeful and excited that we’ve now started with this step. I think there’s a recognition that this is still a long road,” Huntsville Memorial Hospital CEO Steven Smith said.
“It’s still a distribution system in motion with a lot of parts to it. Other than the scheduling of the second dose, we don’t know from week-to-week yet, what the anticipated distribution vaccine to the community is going to be,” Smith added. “They’re working really hard at the state and federal level to get that more predictable, but as we sit here today, we don’t know about additional doses coming into the community.”
While there’s a shortage of vaccines to meet demand, Aiena sees a shortage of staff and resources being the next problems to arise.
“This is the busiest time of year, every year … Now, we’re also dealing with the highest numbers we’ve had in COVID-19 and we’re also having to give a shot that the state has made very cumbersome in the reporting, so we’ve had to have two to three dedicated staff members a day just to give the shot that normally would be helping out with patients,” Aiena said.
Aiena believes that a state-wide streamlined process with increased resources could help expedite vaccine distribution to the entire community.
The Texas Department of State Health Services states that the vaccine is best estimated to be available to the general public this spring. However, that time frame could change depending on vaccine production and how quickly other vaccines become available.