Vaccines, contact tracing app on horizon

Emilie Conlon, Editor-in-Chief

Over the last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two separate COVID-19 vaccines, with the first doses in Wisconsin being given to healthcare workers at UW Hospital in Madison. 

Valley Sentinel asked county health officials in Sauk, Iowa and Richland counties when residents can anticipate vaccine availability in the area. Below are the answers they provided. 

Below are answers from Jessie Phalen, Sauk County Public Health Nurse Manager. 

Valley Sentinel: When can we expect to see doses of the vaccine in the county? 

Jessie Phalen: Unknown, as of today, 12/17/2020, no Sauk County hospitals have gotten COVID-19 vaccine. We anticipate that they will start to see those doses very soon.  

VS: Does your department have a plan on how it might be involved in distributing the vaccines? 

JP: We do, fine-tuning this currently. 

VS: Who would the vaccine be available to? 

JP: The individual states will help determine who is in what phases. The current Phase, which is Phase1a includes frontline health care workers, EMS, and long-term care staff and residents. Those eligible in later phases are still being determined. 

VS: It what ways do you think a vaccine will be helpful? 

JP: The vaccine will help to prevent COVID-19 infections. 

VS: In what ways will it not immediately help? 

JP: The mRNA vaccines, which the Pfizer vaccine, which has received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) and the Moderna, where EUA is pending FDA approval at this time, both require 2 doses, 3 and 4 weeks apart respectively. Both doses are needed to provide the best protection from COVID-19. So it will take time for widespread immunity to occur, which means we will still need to keep that 6’ physical distance, wear masks, avoid crowds, and wash hands frequently for the foreseeable future.  

VS: Do you foresee a wide adoption of the vaccination in the area? Why or why not?

JP: We are very hopeful that many will accept the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Below are answers from Keith Hurlbert, Iowa County Emergency Management director. 

Valley Sentinel: When can we expect to see doses of the vaccine in the county?

Keith Hurlbert: We don’t have a definitive date for this. The vaccine (Pfizer) has only started to arrive in the state. The Public Health Department will likely not see vaccine for another two to three weeks. Upland Hills Health could very likely get vaccine much sooner as they are charged with the duties of vaccinating the front line healthcare workers or those folks who have frequent and prolonged exposure to COVID-19 positive individuals. 

VS: Does your department have a plan on how it might be involved in distributing the vaccines? 

KH: Yes, but certain aspects of the plan are fluid because we don’t have an idea of how many doses we will receive when It becomes available to our area. Emergency Management assists Public Health with the logistics of a vaccination site. The Public Health Department will manage all aspects of the vaccination process and record keeping. The Hospital has its own plan and the pharmacies such as Walgreens will be doing the vaccinations in the Long Term Care Facilities. Again, they are working with those facilities and developing their plans. All entities involved in the vaccination process have been involved in the overall planning process for Iowa County and each is aware of their area of responsibility. 

VS: Who would the vaccine be available to? 

KH: Initially, Frontline Healthcare workers and Long Term Care Facilities. The availability of the vaccine and the quantities will dictate how quickly we can expand beyond these two initial groups. The Federal and State Departments of Health have provided some guidance in the prioritization of categories and subcategories of people based on the vulnerabilities from the likelihood of exposure or their health condition. Because of the nature of the vaccine role out and time it will take to produce enough vaccine to satisfy the total need, those priorities will continually be set and reset as needed based on the number of doses available at any given time. 

VS: It what ways do you think a vaccine will be helpful? In what ways will it not immediately help? 

KH: The end goal is to create herd immunity to the COVID-19 virus. The vaccine will do that if enough people take it. Once vaccinated you are unlikely to get sick from the virus but could still potentially spread the disease. Therefore the need for all people to get vaccinated is important. This highly contagious and potentially lethal virus would be stopped with the vaccine. Because it will take time to get enough people vaccinated to achieve the herd immunity protection, the need to continue wearing masks, social distancing, not gathering in large crowds and practicing basic hand hygiene will remain to be the primary methods for mitigating the spread of the virus. 

VS: Do you foresee a wide adoption of the vaccination in the area? 

KH: We believe that Iowa County will be similar to the rest of the state or nation in regard to the percentages of people who will take the vaccine right away, those who will wait a period of time and those who will never take it. 

VS: Why or why not? 

KH: The education effort on the vaccine got started pretty late in the game. The public needs solid credible information from the season health professionals at the National Level, State Level and Local Level. There is way too much misinformation out there from folks who have their own agendas. We hope people take the time to do their own research, read and listen to both sides and make an educated decision for themselves. Far too many people are willing to let others think for them and that just isn’t a smart thing to do right now. 

The same questions were asked of Rose Kohout, Richland County Public Health Officer. Below is her response. 

Rose Kohout: Currently, we are in the planning phase for vaccine implementation. There are many variables which need to be considered. No specifics are available at this time. 

Below are answers from Richland County Emergency Management Director, Darin Gudgeon. 

VS: When can we expect to see doses of the vaccine in the county?  

Darin Gudgeon: The first shipment of the Pfizer vaccine arrived at the Richland Hospital on the 17th

VS: Does your department have a plan on how it might be involved in distributing the vaccines? 

DG:  Richland County Public Health, the Richland Hospital and Richland County Emergency Management are working together on planning and logistics and will distribute the vaccine according to the phases.  Agencies with licensed/certified healthcare workers have been surveyed so we have a fairly good idea on the number of doses necessary for phase 1a.

VS: In  what ways do you think a vaccine will be helpful? In what ways will it not immediately help?  

DG: We are to early in the process for me to answer this question thoroughly.   If the vaccine does provide 90%+ effectiveness and does not have numerous significant side effects and gets us to herd immunity quicker, then I would say it would be extremely helpful.  It is difficult to speak in terms of how it will immediately or not immediately help when it will take anywhere from 5-6 weeks before anyone that received the vaccine will achieve seroconversion and this is a novel virus and a vaccine that is only being distributed under emergency authorization.  Too many unknowns…

VS: Do you foresee a wide adoption of the vaccination in the area? Why or why not? 

DG: This is difficult to answer because the like virus itself this has become politicized.

Richland Hospital receives vaccines 

A news release from Richland County Emergency Management on Dec. 22 said Richland Hospital received a shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, and was able to provide the first round of vaccinations to 63 healthcare workers. 

The hospital anticipates a secondary shipment of the vaccine this week, and expects to receive weekly shipments of the Pfizer vaccine. The news release states the hospital has not received information on receiving the Moderna vaccine. 

The current phased COVID-19 vaccination plan includes: 

­—Phase 1a includes vaccinating front-line health care workers, long-term care facility residents and staff that generally serve people 65 years and older.  

—Phase 1b includes vaccinating front-line essential workers.

—Phase 1c includes vaccinating individuals age 65 and older, age 16 to 64 with high-risk conditions, and essential workers not included in Phase 1b.

—Phase 2 includes vaccinating all individuals age 16 and older not included in Phase 1 (general public).

Spring Green EMS Chief Derek Miller said he expects the department will be able to receive vaccinations in the next week for EMTs, and is anticipating administering the vaccine at the Spring Green Fire Station via drive-thru, when it can become available to the general public. 

In the last week, Gov. Tony Evers announced the roll-out of a bluetooth smartphone app that would assist state and local health officials in anonymously contact tracing positive COVID-19 exposures and close contacts. Evers announced Dec. 22 the app will be released on Dec. 23, and residents can expect to receive a notification to download the app, although it is unclear what that will look like.

Valley Sentinel asked health officials from Sauk, Iowa and Richland Counties when and if resident can expect usage of the app in their communities. Below are their responses. 

VS: Will the app be utilized at the county level? 

JP: We haven’t discussed this internally as to how we would incorporate this into our workflow. This is very new to us and we need to learn more about this. 

VS: How do you think your department can utilize an app like that? 

JP: Same as above. 

VS: Would having a resource like that be helpful to your department? 

JP: We need to learn a bit more about how this application works, but I think it could be useful, especially given that we have not had the capacity since October to reach out to a positive cases contacts.  

VS: Does your department have a plan for how the app might be used for our area?

JP: Not at this time. 

VS: What would you say to residents that have privacy concerns? 

JP: I can’t address this question until I know more about the application. 

The same questions were given to Hurlbert, below is his response. 

KH: Here is what we know about the app. It is a Bluetooth based technology that requires the phone user to turn it on. The COVID-19 positive individual needs to indicate that they are positive within the app. Once that happens, and others download and turn the app on, they could begin getting notifications that they were within 6ft of a COVID-19 positive individual for a length of time that may put them at risk of catching the virus. As we understand how the app works, the Health Departments have no control who downloads the app or turns it on. It is all voluntary. The Health Departments around the state will likely have to field many phone calls from people who receive these notifications asking questions about what they should do now. In regard to privacy concerns, since it’s a voluntary use app, this should not be an issue. 

Kohout did not respond to these questions.