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Health departments optimistic about online registry

WHEELING — Gov. Jim Justice’s daily coronavirus press conference revealed that next week will see the unveiling of a statewide online registry for COVID-19 vaccinations, which was met with optimism from local health departments.

Mark Ackermann, threat preparedness director for the Marshall County Health Department, said the response from various state health departments was positive across the board, when it was discussed last night.

“When this was discussed with us yesterday, I don’t think there was any health department that was even remotely upset about it,” Ackermann said. “If this system is going to work, it’s a godsend to us. If they’re able to take that call volume off us and make it more of an automated system, not only can they do that online, but they can call in and get registered, that’s an excellent step.”

Ohio County Health Administrator Howard Gamble likened the new system to their current online registration system, VAMS, which is used to arrange vaccines for specific groups, such as health care workers and groups of people involved with higher education. In essence, Gamble said, the new system would be VAMS for the general public.

“They’re using the VAMS system where they dump their info in it,” he said. “They receive an email, they’re scheduled an appointment, and we have the vaccine available, so the appointment matches usually with the person. It’s a great registry system. It has flaws, but it’s the system we have. But it works for the most part.”

The other system the county has had in place, where a clinic is announced and people call to schedule their own appointments, was described as “rudimentary,” but effective. The new system, he said, will pose its own set of problems

“It can be frustrating. Now, with this announcement, it serves as the community’s VAMS. You’re able to call into a number, just like you would with VAMS, you register by dumping your information into it, … and then you wait for the vaccine to match you,” he said. “… It can be a big benefit to all counties, even those that have hundreds of thousands on waiting lists.

“It will be a challenge, though, taking those waiting lists from counties and putting them into the new system — but I think it’ll work,” he added. “That registry is very simple, it registers you, but it doesn’t get you a vaccination. It puts them onto the state’s waiting list, and as vaccine arrives, you’ll be told ‘Here it is.'”

Gamble said the online registry’s biggest saving grace was the ability to more efficiently allocate doses of vaccine from the central state hubs.

“It will have its limitations, but I think in the long run, this is a very good system for the entire 55 counties,” Gamble said. “What it’s going to do is allow us to track vaccine as it arrives, and maybe the state can see where’s the need. That’s really important because you may see a large need in a metropolitan or rural area, and the vaccine needs to be moved to that area. Other counties may not have a need because someone hasn’t decided yet, vaccine hesitancy, or we vaccinated a lot of people there already.

“It allows the state to see where to push distribution,” he added, “but it’s going to be many weeks of this.”

Gamble had previously expressed his support for the phone bank system, where people call in to register their place at a daily vaccination clinic. While public opinion regarding the call center method has largely derided the difficulty in getting through to make the appointment, Gamble said their slots fill up in record time.

“They complain that they couldn’t get through, but alternatively, 150 or 400 did. We did get people vaccinated,” he said Thursday, after Justice’s announcement. “It is frustrating when you can’t get through to anything, whether it’s vaccination or another service.”

In Ohio County, Gamble said the new system would not end up saving many man-hours, as clinic staff would answer phones to schedule appointments until they were full, before returning to their normal duties, which didn’t take much time due to the rapid pace of scheduling.

In Marshall County, Ackermann said that shifting the call pressure off the health department’s staff would be fantastic.

“It’s going to free up more people to work on contact tracing,” Ackermann said. “We’re hoping to pair up with WVU Medicine Reynolds Memorial Hospital, to do larger-scale clinics, between the two of us together. If we had vaccine to do it eight hours a day, seven days a week, we would be doing it. It’s just, we don’t have it. We’ll get it out as soon as we possibly can. We think it’s a good plan we’re discussing, they’re talking about providing some more of the clinical staff, with some of ours. … We have the contacts to make these things happen.”

Ackermann said they were waiting for the state to roll back vaccine clinics into a county-by-county system, rather than regional, before taking further action on that front.

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