LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – As states grapple with a slow rollout to the COVID-19 vaccine, Arkansas is being put in the spotlight.
It’s been almost a month since the first doses arrived in the state last December. Still most Arkansans don’t know when they can get the shot, and the majority of the state’s supply sits in storage.
Numbers from the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH), show as of Wednesday, the state received 276,300 doses and used about a third.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks Arkansas as not the worst, but not the best when it comes to how fast vaccines are distributed.
“The focus was not necessarily the paperwork but getting the shots in the arms,” Governor Asa Hutchinson said. “We’re dependent upon pharmacies and hospitals entering the data, and they have 3 days to do it, and then we collect the data and it’s transferred to the CDC. Then they have to upload it and get it right too.”
According to ADH Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, there are reporting delays with pharmacies and healthcare providers as they upload information on vaccines.
“We’re having some data transfer issues in some cases,” said Dr. Dillaha, who is also the Medical Director for Immunizations and Outbreak Response at ADH.
She says pharmacies and healthcare providers are required to log on and report their numbers to ADH within 72-hours, but the state’s system has glitches.
“We have reports of people entering their data and then not coming through and we’re trying to troubleshoot it.” Dr. Dillaha explained.
Without the most up-to-date records, she says it’s hard to see if doses are sitting in storage for too long. However, Dr. Dillaha promises a fix is on the way, but couldn’t guarantee a timeline.
“Stay tuned I think the data will get better,” she said. “We’ll have real time information as close as possible to where the vaccine is, who has extra, and where the doses are needed.”
The gaps in Arkansas’ system of tracking vaccines is part of why Dr. Dillaha says it’s hard for the state to get a grasp on anything else that could be causing delays in the rollout.
She says she’s heard from multiple pharmacies and hospitals where doses have been wasted.
One way that can happen is when vaccines aren’t stored properly, which can spoil them.
Dr. Dillaha says another instance is when doses have to be thrown out. She says that’s because the Pfizer and Moderna vials hold multiple does, but all of those have to be used within a 6-hour window. She says if there aren’t enough patients lined up, there’s waste.
“I’m not really sure of the numbers,” Dr. Dillaha said. “Right now there are no penalties for the loss of vaccine either due to spoilage or wastage, but we would be monitoring that.”
Some pharmacies are trying to prevent waste by pulling people from waiting lists, as long as they fall in one of the priority groups outlined by the state.
Meanwhile Gov. Hutchinson says he believes there’s a learning curve that comes as the state decides who should get the vaccine first.
“Some chose not to take priority so we’re going to move on,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
He’s expanding access to vaccine as of Monday, January 18, to include teachers, day care workers, and anyone 70 or older.
His hope is to up the state’s vaccination percentage, which he says currently sits at 3 percent of the population.
“I don’t think anybody who wants to get all the vaccinations out can be satisfied with it,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
Even as he expands the eligibility list, other state leaders are pushing for more.
Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin tweeted in part, “let’s get the vaccine into as many arms as possible and use more, bigger venues to do it.”
The state isn’t making those plans just yet, with the Governor saying there aren’t enough doses to go around.
“It would not be good to have War Memorial Stadium as a mass distribution center when you’ve only got a limited supply of doses,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “You have to organize this in a way that makes sense. There will be opportunities for more mass clinics whenever we have the supply and when it makes sense.”