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How One Vt. Hospital System Is Preparing Primary Care Docs To Offer COVID Vaccines

In addition to “widespread” flu outbreaks across the country this winter, the flu vaccine is only about 30 percent effective this year, according to Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.
Toby Talbot
The Associated Press
Central Vermont Medical Center's eight primary care practices will all offer patients COVID-19 vaccines starting Monday. The Scott administration estimates 65% of primary care doctors plan to offer the shot.

When the COVID-19 vaccines were first being distributed, public health officials pleaded with residents not to call their primary care doctors for a shot. Instead, the state facilitated much of the initial vaccine rollout. But now, with more than 82% of Vermonters vaccinated and demand for vaccines falling, local doctors are increasingly taking on the work of getting shots into arms.

At a recent press conference, Gov. Phil Scott said more than 65% of primary care practices in Vermont say they plan to offer COVID-19 vaccines to their patients.

VPR’s Henry Epp interviewed Barbara Quealy, a registered nurse and the director of primary care operations at Central Vermont Medical Centerabout the role primary care doctors can play in getting Vermonters vaccinated and the logistical components of delivering COVID-19 vaccines.

Henry Epp: So first, how are primary care offices are opting in to offer vaccines? What do they need to do there?

Barbara Quealy: In order to do so, they need to go through an enrollment process with the state. That includes working with the state to be sure that we have approved storage, transport and education and training for our nurses.

OK. And I mentioned the 65% number in terms of your network, how many primary care offices are you seeing opt in to give vaccines?

All of them. We have eight primary care sites here and all of them have gone through the enrollment process. They are in the process, as we speak, of receiving the vaccine. Each of those eight sites will have the vaccine available by this Friday, and we will start offering that to our patients as of next Monday.

More from VPR News: This Vermonter Is Corralling Vt. Vaccine Info To Help People Get Shots Faster

Several of the vaccines have to be stored at extra cold temperatures. Do primary care offices have the ability to store them for the length of time that they'll need them?

So, yes — they do. The ultra-cold storage, the freezer part of the product handling, will happen here at the hospital, where we do have that deep freeze facility. Our pharmacy staff will then distribute and start the thaw process, bringing that product out to the primary care sites, where it will be stored in refrigerators for up to 30 days.

"For so many months, we worked hard to avoid any waste. Now the state has shifted its focus to avoiding any lost opportunity."
Barbara Quealy, nurse and director of primary care operations, Central Vermont Medical Center

What kind of demand are you seeing, so far, for vaccines in primary care offices? Do you have a sense of how many patients will want to get a shot through their doctor?

Well, so far the demand has been very low. We have opened up conversation with our patients on the phones and in person. Those that remain reluctant are waiting until they have a chance to talk to their primary care provider in person, and that's when we really hope to have an impact on those few that are still out there.

More fromVermont Edition: Health Update: Vt. Vaccination Rates, Delta Variant

Is there a potential for some shots to go to waste as you distribute them out to the offices, given that demand is as low as it is?

I have no doubt about that. And the state has been very clear with their guidance to us. For so many months, we worked hard to avoid any waste. Now the state has shifted its focus to avoiding any lost opportunity.

But that does mean that more shots are not being used. Is that right?

That's correct. But we do have some strategies in place here, trying to minimize that waste, by coordinating patients within certain days, or patients who have to come back for their second shot — we're going to try to do that on the same day as well, so that if we're opening a vial of six vaccines, then we'll have six patients coordinated for that day.

According to the Scott administration, about 95,000 eligible Vermonters still have not gotten a shot. Are primary care providers the best way to get vaccines to those who still haven't gotten inoculated at this point?

I think they're an important part of the strategy. There are teams working now to find a way to bring it to our emergency room, to our inpatients, to new nursing home patients, as well as our primary care teams.

More from VPR: 'Building The Plane While We Fly It': BIPOC Community Organizers Shrink The Gap On Vaccine Equity

And at this point, what are you hearing from patients, in terms of the reasons that they are reluctant to get vaccinated?

They're very nervous. Those that remain reluctant, perhaps, have read too much on the internet or they're confused. They're … maybe have had a bad experience with an immunization in the past and are fearful that will happen again. Some have allergies and they're afraid of a potential allergic reaction. So, we have systems in place in our offices to help respond to any unseen emergency and be sure that the patients feel safe.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Brittany Patterson joined Vermont Public in December 2020. Previously, she was an energy and environment reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource. Prior to that, she covered public lands, the Interior Department and forests for E&E News' ClimateWire, based in Washington, D.C. Brittany also teaches audio storytelling and has taught classes at West Virginia University, Saint Michael's College and the University of Vermont. She holds degrees in journalism from San Jose State University and U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. A native of California, Brittany has fallen in love with Vermont. She enjoys hiking, skiing, baking and cuddling with her rescues, a 95-pound American Bulldog mix named Cooper, and Mila, the most beautiful calico cat you'll ever meet.
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