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Belmont County readies to vaccinate seniors

Belmont County Deputy Health Commissioner Robert Sproul, pictured standing at a prior meeting while Commissioner Jerry Echemann listens, says vaccinating Ohio’s senior citizens against COVID-19 will be a daunting task, even with the recipients broken up by age groups with the oldest to be able to receive their vaccines Jan. 19.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — After Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s announcement Thursday that Ohio’s senior citizens will be vaccinated against COVID-19 in stages based on age, local authorities are working to organize inoculation plans in Belmont County.

Vaccinations continue for people in the Phase 1A group, primarily health care workers and others who may be in close contact with COVID patients. Due to high demand, shots for seniors in Phase 1B are being delayed.

On Jan. 19, vaccinations will be available to people 80 and older, more than 400,000 Ohioans. Every following week, the state will expand vaccine eligibility in five-year increments, with people 75 and older eligible Jan. 25, followed by people 70 and older, then people 65 and older hopefully able to receive vaccines by Feb. 8.

Belmont County Deputy Health Commissioner Robert Sproul and his staff are tasked with preparing vaccine sites around the county for recipients, as well as establishing a phone line for them to call in and make appointments. He said the initial phone line was quickly overwhelmed with calls.

“Quite a few people have already contacted us and given us information. We have to reach out to a few people who have contacted us and given us information. We’re going to have to reach out to a few more people who have contacted us — we don’t want anyone to contact us, we’ll contact them. We’re going to try and get more information from some of the people who didn’t give us their birthdate or what city they live in, so we’re going to reach back out to them,” he said.

“Then we can reach out to them, plus that’ll give us an idea where in the county they are, so if we have a large group along the river we’ll need a larger facility, whereas if we have a smaller number in the mid-or-western side of the county, we won’t need a large facility. The numbers will dictate where we will go, the size of the building. Another thing it will dictate is the amount of vaccines we get,” he said.

“We won’t know until next week how many doses we’ll have available for that 80-plus category, and the week following when it goes to 75 and up, in addition to the people with very severe health conditions, we won’t know how many doses we’ll get then, so we’ll always every week be chasing how many doses we’ll get to be able to distribute out to those groups,” he said.

Sproul said his office has regularly been receiving about 100 new doses weekly. Hewould not speculate if that amount might increase in the coming weeks, but he has been told by the state his department will be updated every Tuesday or Wednesday regarding how many new doses may be delivered the following week.

“That gives us about a week’s notice on getting things planned and prepped in anticipation for those vaccines, but we don’t have any indication on whether it’s 100, 200 or what,” Sproul said.

He noted Belmont County faces a particular challenge in this regard, since about 45 percent of the county population is approximately 65 years old or older. That amounts to more than 30,000 individuals, since the total population is estimated at just over 67,000.

“We are an older county just by demographics, and when you add in the school staff and the people with serious health conditions, that’s a fair number of our population,” Sproul said. “So that 1B I think is going to be one of the bigger groups that we’re going to have to fight through.”

Sproul could not say how many people in the 80 and older first group may be interested in the vaccine.

“We haven’t got an exact number at this time. I’m kind of thinking we’re not going to have enough doses to get through that first group for a week or two,” he said. “We need a larger number of vaccines we can work with to get more of the population done.”

“I just ask people to be patient. Everyone across the state is dealing with this same issue,” he said. “There’s a lot of need and not a lot of vaccine.”

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