As healthcare providers predict Oklahoma’s coronavirus situation will worsen following the holidays, some local health departments are moving into phase two of the state’s vaccine distribution plan and giving doses to seniors.
Oklahoma started getting its first shipments of the vaccine on Dec. 14, with first doses marked for frontline health care workers, paramedics, and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. An estimated 157,900 Oklahomans are eligible for vaccinations in phase one of the state’s distribution plan.
In its weekly report, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 50,330 shots had been given as of Saturday. The state had received 174,900 doses of the vaccine from the federal government, but health officials say an appointment for administration has been scheduled for each dose.
Just days into the new year, the state broke its record for COVID-19 case growth. The state’s seven-day average for new cases reached a high on Sunday and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 was at its highest level yet on Tuesday with 1,994 patients.
Federal and state officials have urged patience and warned that it will be several months before vaccines are widely available.
“Our vaccine rollout can only go as quickly as we’re getting supplies from the federal government,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye.
It’s tricky to estimate how many Oklahomans will be vaccinated in the coming weeks. State officials say the federal government notifies them of how many doses they will receive only one week in advance, so vaccination appointments are scheduled on a week-by-week basis.
Keith Reed, deputy commissioner for the State Department of Health, said the state received about 32,500 doses this week and expects to get 46,300 shots next week.
“We really have to do this one week at a time,” Reed said during a virtual news conference on Monday.
Though some counties have started to transition into phase two of the vaccine distribution plan giving shots to those 65 and older among other eligible groups, the state continues to vaccinate those in phase one.
In an effort to make scheduling vaccination appointments easier, the state is set to launch a vaccine registration portal on Thursday that will help Oklahomans determine whether they’re currently eligible for a shot and how to schedule an appointment to receive one if they are.
Oklahoma initially planned to use a scheduling app that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention developed, but Reed said that app didn’t meet the state’s needs. Instead, the health department partnered with Microsoft to build an app.
In the meantime, some local health departments are turning to online services such as SignUpGenius to fill vaccine administration appointment slots. There are 76 points of distribution sites in counties across Oklahoma.
The Oklahoma City-County Health Department, which is beginning vaccinations for seniors, is one of the agency’s using SignUpGenius for scheduling. Only four minutes after a sign-up page went live on Tuesday morning, nearly all of the roughly 1,200 appointments in a vaccination clinic planned for later this week were filled, said Molly Fleming, a public information officer for the department.
Additional clinics are expected later this month, she said. About 18,000 shots had been administered in Oklahoma County as of Monday.
In Tulsa County, those 65 and older can start scheduling appointments as soon as Thursday, said Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department. So far, the county has administered more than 10,000 doses, he said.
As appointments roll out, health departments are looking for ways to reach people who don’t have access to the internet or use social media to ensure access to the vaccine. In Oklahoma County, the health department will ask churches to have their youth groups help senior members navigate the process, Fleming said. The department will also direct people to its hotline.
State officials are encouraging friends and family members to lend a hand to Oklahomans who might not be able to access the app. People can also call 211. Right now, those quicker on the draw are more likely to get the vaccine sooner, Reed said.
“It’s a legitimate concern,” he said.
“It’s something that we continue to work through on a day-by-day basis. And quite frankly … this is going to be a very difficult process and it’s going to be a long process and there’s going to be a lot of challenges.”