It took hours of searching, a late night tip, and lots of hits on the refresh button, but Shawnee, Kansas-based Kathy Cook managed to get five of her relatives, mostly in their 70s and 80s, for COVID coverage. 19 vaccine.
The only exception was her husband Steve, who has been treated for cancer at the University of Kansas Health System for three years.
He has had good experiences with treatments and would be on the list as a patient at the KU that the medical facility uses to invite people for a vaccination. The problem: he’s only 58 years old, and Kansas doesn’t yet prioritize people with medical histories that make them vulnerable. In Kansas, priority is given to people 65 and over.
However, Steve’s cancer makes him eligible on the Missouri side. But without connections as a patient in a hospital in Missouri or through an employer there, he cannot get a chance in Missouri either.
Hospitals play a big role in distributing the limited supply of coronavirus vaccines. But as pressure mounts to get people vaccinated before the more transmissible variants of the virus catch on, people across Kansas City are finding that the criteria for a shot vary from state to state, hospital to hospital. Being at the right status level doesn’t necessarily guarantee an early date.
In Kansas, for example, having a recent hospital vaccination often helps. Johnson County’s hospitals have the option to prioritize their own patients 65 and older, while the county health department focuses on other at-risk groups.
Missouri, on the other hand, strictly forbids hospitals from giving preference to their youngest patients. However, the state has also ordered its hospitals to limit the vaccine to residents, patients, or workers in Missouri.
The result is often confusion for people looking for the fastest and closest shot.
Carlos Moreno / KCUR 89.3
A Truman Medical Center technician prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vial for vaccination in the community in January this year in Kansas City, Missouri.
Sasha Fritzel and her mother are both Missouri residents and both have illnesses that put them in the current Missouri stage.
“I signed up for every hospital, county, and town list we were eligible to see and called every few days to inquire,” she said.
However, they found a few spots where the vaccine was restricted to 65 years and older, which ruled both out. Eventually they got appointments at a clinic in Missouri an hour and a half away, although “it’s worth getting vaccinated,” Fritzel said.
Cook had had a similar experience of getting appointments for all of her eligible relatives. Although they signed up for notifications at Johnson County hospitals, no one heard of it. They were all vaccinated through Walmart or grocery stores.
Because Wyandotte County does not vaccinate through hospitals, Kansas hospitals are working with the Johnson County Health Department for guidance on vaccine distribution.
The county decided early on that COVID-19 footage should be available in many different locations as it would be more efficient and faster, said Dr. Sanmi Areola, Johnson County Director of Public Health. Therefore, the vaccination in the district is organized with a slightly different focus for each type of provider.
Hospitals with their large patient lists vaccinate people aged 65 and over. For its clinics and other providers that serve nursing homes, the district focuses on the over 80s. Because of this, it is okay for Kansas hospitals to prioritize their own patient lists for Johnson County, Areola said.
Carlos Moreno / KCUR 89.3
Immunization dates and arrangements vary from state to state and from county to county in Kansas and Missouri.
Every hospital in Kansas does something different. The University of Kansas Health Care System has a publicly available online form, but is working through its own patient list of Johnson County residents in the age group 65 and over before consulting non-patients, said Kim Dixon, assistant chief nursing officer.
To date, the hospital has dispensed more than 26,500 first and second doses and there are about 4,000 left before the candidate list is exhausted. A person is considered a new patient if they have been treated in hospital within the last three years, excluding laboratory work and radiology.
There is no prioritization within the patient group. In fact, the KU randomizes their pool of names so that everyone has an equal chance of being called, Dixon said. The hospital will help with clinics and other efforts as the vaccine becomes more available, she said.
AdventHealth also invites people from its patient list. But it has also opened up vaccinations through clinics to the general public and pulled names off the online form.
Because of the limited amount of vaccines, “we only met a small fraction of each of these groups,” said Morgan Shandler, communications manager at AdventHealth. “But we have tried to really share and pay off what we get from the county.”
So far, the hospital has vaccinated around 10,000 people, including employees, with the first and second dose, she said.
AdventHealth makes reaching underserved communities a priority, Shandler added.
“This virus doesn’t know whether it is a patient of ours or not. We want to make it easy for our patients to get the vaccine through us, but we don’t just reserve it for our patients, ”she said.
Stan Holm, President of Olathe Health, said at a press conference last week that 15,000 residents over 65 on the patient list “all in line and ready who have called us” were an efficient way to get vaccinated.
He added that the hospital is treating underserved patients.
“There might be a perception that we have all of these patients who are seen in all of our healthcare systems and are not underserved. They are. We have underserved patients that we will take care of, ”said Holm.
The hospital plans to work with the county to reach people who are struggling to access health care. In the meantime, vaccinations are still available to these people through district clinics. The more doses that are available at pharmacies and grocery stores, said Areola of Johnson County Health Department.
“Justice has always been the most important lens we’ve looked through,” he said. The county has worked hard to serve independent housing facilities and tried to find a solution for people who do not have transportation.
Carlos Moreno / KCUR 89.3
LPN Brice Headrick injects Anita Haney, 74, who showed up at Linwood YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri on February 3 for her first COVID-19 vaccination. The vaccination clinic was offered by Truman Medical Centers.
In Missouri, select hospitals receive 53 percent of the state’s weekly immunization allocations. Truman Medical Centers is one of those hospitals. So far, Truman has vaccinated in the neighborhood of 23,000 people, including first and second doses, said Charlie Shields, its president and CEO.
Truman uses three methods to populate its vaccination schedule – an online or call-in registration, its patient list, and community clinics. But those names all go in one hat and no one gets a greater preference than indicated in the tier group, Shields said. Ordering is first come, first served.
Although patients are not preferred, Missouri residents are. Residents of other states can get the vaccine if they’ve been hospitalized patients or working in Missouri, Shields said.
It wasn’t always the case. When the vaccines first became available, state regulations only said vaccines could not cross the state line, but non-state vaccines could be vaccinated. When the larger tier opened in February, Missouri officials decided to tighten things up.
Truman, a safety net hospital, will continue to reach out to people with access issues, Shields said.
“We’ve probably done more than anyone, and that’s fine. But we also recognize that there is more work to be done ”to make it available to underserved groups.
“There is still more demand than supply in any category,” Shields said. “But we know that will change.”
With fierce competition for vaccination spots, it’s best to sign up anywhere, anywhere, say health officials who are betting on larger broadcasts in the next few weeks.
That worked for Cook and Fritzel, even though they said it was nerve-wracking. The cook took time off to do things for her relatives.
“It’s a hunt,” she said and one that disadvantages those without the time and computers and families to help.