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‘When, where and how’? Nevada elders await details on vaccine rollout

Updated January 4, 2021 - 7:11 am

Once Norman “Pete” Robinovitz made up his mind to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible, he called the governor’s office every day for more than a week to find out how to make it happen.

The 76-year-old Las Vegas resident began making the calls after an advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended on Dec. 20 that those 75 and older be moved up in priority for receiving the vaccine. The panel advised that this group, along with front-line essential workers such as firefighters and police officers, should receive the vaccine right after the highest priority groups: front-line health care workers and nursing home residents and staff.

Robinovitz was unable to reach an actual person until Wednesday, when a “very sweet” young woman told him that Gov. Steve Sisolak would hold a news conference that afternoon to talk about the vaccine rollout.

He welcomed the governor’s news that he and others in his age bracket would be eligible to receive the vaccine sooner than originally planned. But he was still a little ticked off when he spoke with a reporter on Thursday.

“Still no color on when, where and how,” said Robinovitz, who said he’d become a “virtual hermit” since the pandemic began.

“Just ‘you’re going to be next,’ but no direction on where to go and what to do, et cetera,” said Robinovitz, who before the pandemic would play poker four or five times a week at Las Vegas casinos but now limits his excursions to a once-a-week trip to the store for groceries and other essentials.

‘People are dying’

The governor and other public health officials said last week that more details on the continuing vaccine rollout will be provided soon. But Nevadans are impatient, as Heidi Parker, of Immunize Nevada, well knows.

“I get it,” said Parker, executive director of the nonprofit. “People are dying. This is a vaccine that is life-saving. And we also want our community to get back to a sense of normalcy.”

She said her office has fielded countless phone calls from older adults wanting to know when they can get their vaccinations.

The confusion is understandable, as public health officials grapple with the immense challenge of the largest vaccination effort in U.S. history amid changing circumstances.

In its vaccine distribution playbook, Nevada initially listed people 65 and older at the bottom of the third tier for receiving the vaccine, just ahead of the healthy adults who make up the fourth tier.

But as guidance from the CDC has changed, so have Nevada’s priority tiers, which the manager of the state’s vaccination program described as “fluid.”

“Using available federal guidance, the program has worked hard to develop a playbook that is specific to our state and weighs our vulnerable populations’ ethical considerations … workforce needs, geography and concerns from partners and stakeholders,” Shannon Bennett, immunization program manager for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said at Wednesday’s virtual news conference with Sisolak.

Who’s next?

Despite such efforts, there’s been an outcry, in Nevada and across the country, about the groups prioritized to receive doses of vaccine after front-line health care workers and those at nursing homes.

In its playbook, Nevada placed “essential retail workers” and prisoners, among other groups, ahead of those 65 and older and people with underlying health conditions.

Then on Dec. 20, the CDC advisory panel walked back its controversial recommendation that prioritized essential workers ahead of older adults. In the days that followed, state officials said Nevada will adhere to the latest guidance, which meant moving up in priority those 75 and older.

The CDC in its latest guidance also recommended that the next group include those 65 to 74, people with underlying health conditions as well as other essential workers. Bennett said this group of older adults would remain in Nevada’s Tier 3. According to the current playbook, that would still place them behind Tier 2’s essential retail workers, prisoners, teachers and child care workers, among others.

Certain states are bucking the CDC’s guidance. Texas, Florida and some other Republican-led states are instead offering doses to the younger seniors before essential workers, The Washington Post reported last week.

In Nevada, state officials said a revised version of the playbook will be issued in the next week or two. Bennett said she did not expect that the tiers of essential workers would “vary greatly from the current playbook.”

Representatives of both the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services and the Southern Nevada Health District declined requests last week for interviews to discuss the vaccine rollout and the tier system.

At least 25,000 doses of the vaccine had been administered in Nevada as of Tuesday, with the true figure higher because of lags in reporting, according to Sisolak. The first vaccines distributed in the state, the ones manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna, require two doses three to four weeks apart for full effectiveness.

Acute-care hospitals continued last week to immunize to their employees, who are in the first-priority tier.

On Dec. 14, University Medical Center in Las Vegas was the first hospital in Nevada to receive and begin administering the vaccine. Hospital CEO Mason Van Houweling said that on Tuesday he was among the last employees to receive his shot in the first round of vaccinations.

The hospital has administered 2,342 doses of vaccine to UMC “team members,” which beyond employees also include patient-facing providers and contractors who regularly and primarily work at UMC, spokesman Scott Kerbs said. Roughly half of UMC’s 4,000 employees have opted so far to get the vaccine.

While many in the community are clamoring to receive the vaccine, some hospital employees don’t wish to be first in line and prefer to take a wait-and-see approach or delay until after the holidays, Van Houweling said.

Among the more eager are those “who have actually seen the devastating impact of the virus” by treating COVID-19 patients, Van Houweling said. About 500 UMC employees have been diagnosed with COVID-19, he said.

UMC has received 5,155 vaccine doses. The total consists of 2,155 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 3,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

First responders inoculated

Last week, the county hospital used some of the remaining doses to begin vaccinating members of the Clark County Fire Department, who fall within Tier 1 in the state’s current playbook as emergency medical and public safety personnel. Other emergency responders, such as Community Ambulance in Henderson, also are preparing to administer the vaccine.

Van Houweling said UMC also is preparing to inoculate Las Vegas police officers at its vaccination clinic.

As of Wednesday, 179 of the county fire department’s 710 personnel had received the vaccine, with inoculations continuing for another week or two. Vaccinations are being staggered to take into account possible side effects that could prevent firefighters from doing their jobs.

More than 125 members of the department have had COVID-19, said Deputy Fire Chief Jennifer Wyatt.

“We’ve been very excited about this vaccine for a long time, like everybody else,” said Fire Chief John Steinbeck. “And we have a lot of demand in our department to to get the vaccine. We really want to protect our firefighters first and foremost but then also add that extra protection to people that we serve.”

He said firefighters can’t socially distance when administering aid to “someone whose heart has just stopped or that’s having breathing difficulty.”

Steinbeck said the department is a microcosm of the community, with some hesitant to get the vaccine, though they’re in the minority.

But many have questions.

“We’ve been very proactive in answering those questions, including making medical professionals at the highest level available to answer many questions,” Steinbeck said. “And it’s had an effect.”

As for Robinovitz, after learning about the vaccines, he came to the conclusion that he’d be a “complete fool” not to get the shot to further protect himself against the virus after months of isolation and mask-wearing.

“I don’t have a multi-, multi-year future ahead of me,” he said. “I wouldn’t mind being able to enjoy my limited time and whatever is happening out in the world.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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