U.C. Health Commissioner encouraged by virus trends

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Union County Health Commissioner Jason Orcena said he is encouraged by the positive developments surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, in part due to the local mass vaccination efforts.
“We’re not quite back to where we were in October but we are on track to get there if things continue as they are,” he said at Wednesday’s Board of Health meeting.
He said the number of actively ill individuals in the county has consistently declined since a spike around the holidays.
Outpatient visits by those who later test positive for COVID-19 and local hospitalizations are dropping, as well.
“The numbers just keep decreasing,” Orcena said. “It is encouraging, in some respects.”
He said the improvement shown by the data could be attributed to cold weather keeping hospital visits and testing low, or because many nursing homes are “on the other side of outbreaks.”
Orcena said the area’s vaccination effort has likely played a significant role, as well.
He said more than 70% of those 80 and older living in Union County and more than half of those 70 and older have been vaccinated.
“It looks very good, (I’m) pretty pleased with the progress,” Orcena said.
The health commissioner noted that the “biggest limiting factor is the vaccine availability.”
He said the Union County Health Department, like other providers, receives vaccine shipments from the state.
Representatives from the state alert local health departments as to how many vaccines they will receive that week and what manufacturer the shot is made by, which determines how it will be stored.
Orcena said the state recently mandated that vaccine will be received by health departments “no later than close-of-business Wednesday.”
Even so, he said exactly when the doses will be received is somewhat unpredictable because federal shipping delays can cause back-ups down to the local level.
“On more than one occasion there has been a delay in shipping,” Orcena said.
Though the local health department cannot guarantee when they will receive doses, Orcena said the state requires that vaccinations begin within 24 hours of doses arriving and all shots are administered within seven days.
“It puts an incredible amount of pressure on us to use as much vaccine as we possibly can on Thursday and Friday of that week,” he explained.
He said these factors contribute to a short turnaround time between the scheduling window for appointments and the vaccination clinic.
“Logistically, this has been a very complex process for us,” he added.
Orcena said the health department recently “made the decision to give less notice” as to when the vaccine scheduler will open in an attempt to prioritize Union County residents.
Since the vaccine is considered a federal asset, UCHD cannot deny any eligible individual based on their residency.
Orcena said the online scheduler became overwhelmed and shut down when the health department gave advance notice because “people all over Central Ohio attempted to sign-up.”
He said most complaints surrounding the vaccination clinics revolve around the scheduling system.
Orcena said residents often call “five minutes” after the scheduler opens to alert UCHD employees that the website is “broken” since they cannot make an appointment.
“Our online scheduler is not broken, it’s already full,” Orcena said, emphasizing that the available doses are often claimed within minutes.
He said the health department hasn’t received any complaints from individuals who have been through the clinics, but often hears from those who have been unable to make an appointment thus far.
It seems as though the state government has also observed the issues surrounding scheduling, as Orcena said it is implementing a statewide, centralized scheduling system.
“Back in August, I was one of the loudest voices saying the state needs to have a scheduling system,” Orcena said, adding that other health commissioners rallied for one in November but the state “didn’t move forward at this time.”
Approximately two weeks after UCHD contracted with an independent company to handle online scheduling, he said the state alerted local health departments of their intent to create a statewide system.
He said UCHD “will likely be coerced or outright forced into that system.”
It will allow for real-time reporting into the state database, Orcena said, but may create other challenges.
He said UCHD will need to train staff on the new system and aren’t certain how data from the current program will be moved over.
“Staff are already tired and already stressed so moving to another system is just adding to that,” he said.
It will also “increase the public appearance” of Union County clinics, which could result in more out-of-county individuals attending the local clinic when vaccines are available.
Regardless of what issues it addresses or hurdles it creates, Orcena said it “doesn’t solve the fundamental issue” surrounding clinics.
“People assume not getting an appointment is the system’s fault,” he said. “It is actually low vaccine availability.”



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