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Confusion rules in hustle to get vaccine in arms; waiting lists long, growing in Arkansas

Waiting lists long, growing for limited number of doses by Lara Farrar | January 24, 2021 at 9:33 a.m.
Brittany Marsh, a pharmacist and owner of the Cornerstone Pharmacy on Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock, administers a first dose of the covid-19 vaccine to Chris Morse, a coach at Central Arkansas Christian Academy, on Thursday. “It has been emotional,” Marsh said of the logistical challenges in get people vaccinated. “We want to be able to help Grandpa and Grandma who walk in the door. We want to so badly.” (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Almost a week since the state OK'd Arkansans 70 and older to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, many senior citizens and pharmacists tell stories of frustration and confusion in seeking merely an appointment to get a shot.

"It has been emotional," said Brittany Marsh, owner of Cornerstone Pharmacy-Rodney Parham in Little Rock. "We want to be able to help Grandpa and Grandma who walk in the door. We want to so badly."

Cornerstone has barely made a dent in its waiting list of thousands of people, mostly 70 and older, seeking covid-19 inoculations, Marsh said.

The pharmacy shares its allocation of Pfizer vaccines with other pharmacies that lack ultra-cold refrigerators necessary to store it and had only about 600 doses to administer last week, said Marsh, who is a pharmacist.

Many of those doses went to schools that made arrangements to vaccinate faculty members, Marsh said. Arkansans 70 and older and school staffs from day care centers to higher ed were approved by the state to start vaccinations last Monday.

Limited allocations of the two vaccines approved so far, Pfizer and Moderna, remain the main challenge, according to public health officials and health care providers responsible for inoculating some 311,000 people 70 and older and roughly 132,000 educators.

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The problem most older Arkansans face is that unlike school staffs, health care workers and long-term-care residents, they aren't part of a workplace or residential setting that can set up appointments or vaccination clinics for them. They're the first slice of the general public that has had to make a go of setting up appointments on their own.

Last week, Arkansas received just more than 37,000 doses of vaccine designated for first-time vaccinations.

Those doses were divided among more than 200 local pharmacies, a handful of hospitals and others, leaving some providers with no vaccine allocations and others with as few as 100 doses and waiting lists of sometimes thousands.

"We have a very large group to vaccinate with a very small number of doses each week," said Jennifer Dillaha, the state's epidemiologist.

Dosage numbers may improve, at least for the short-term, this week.

Late Friday, the state announced it would reallocate 40,000 doses that had been set aside for long-term-care facilities and other uses. Those doses turned out to be surplus.

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Now, the surplus doses will supplement roughly 37,000 doses the state expects to receive this week, as part of its weekly allocation from the federal government.

Even with limited doses, Arkansas accelerated the numbers who received covid-19 vaccinations last week. Between Jan. 16 and Jan. 22, providers injected more than 76,600 people, including some receiving shots for the first time and some receiving second injections, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.

That figure represents 38% -- more than a third -- of about 200,800 doses of covid-19 vaccine injected since Dec. 14, when inoculations began in the state. On Thursday alone, more than 17,000 doses were injected, according to the Health Department.

Data compiled by The New York Times ranked Arkansas 15th nationally as of Friday in terms of percentage of first doses administered.

"I think we are doing well," Dillaha said. "We have been through a pretty steep learning curve. It has not been as organized and as well-communicated as we would like, but we are getting the job done."

While the learning curve may not be as steep now, providers still face the task of managing long waiting lists with many people on it over age 70. Some have signed up for shots at multiple locations, which state officials say makes it difficult to project the true demand for future allocations.

"We don't want people to call around to other counties or to make appointments in several places because it really confuses the planning," Dillaha said. "If someone gets on four different wait-lists or makes four different appointments, that is three people who could not get an appointment."

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At Little Rock's Cornerstone Pharmacy, "we are trying to accommodate everyone," said owner Marsh. "But definitely have had some people walk in who are eager to get it, and we are constantly having to say, 'we'll let you know.'"

On a recent afternoon, a stream of people at the pharmacy included Paul Berry and his wife, Mary, still trying to get on a waiting list for the 70-and-older group.

Cornerstone was the fourth pharmacy they'd visited.

The first had not received vaccine and "didn't know when they were going to get it," Paul Berry said. The other locations told the couple to go online and try to get on a waiting list over the weekend.

"I have been chasing this for weeks," he said. "I thought we were on a list with our regular pharmacy, but then they didn't get any vaccine, so now I am scrambling."

It is not uncommon for senior citizens who may not have access to computers or lack computer skills to walk in and want to sign up, Marsh said. Her pharmacy will write people's names down to add to the waiting list. Others overrun with calls have advised people to sign up online.

The state Health Department has a covid-19 hot line 800 number for anyone to use, but especially for those who aren't comfortable using computers. That number is (800) 803-7847, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.


State health officials advise individuals to sign up with one pharmacy, preferably one nearby or that they regularly use, and have patience as these pharmacies work through their waiting lists.

They say that while the natural inclination may be to call around to get on as many waiting lists as possible, that will hurt everyone in the long-run.

"We don't have a lot of choice other than for all of us to be patient and methodical about getting the vaccine out there and chipping away at the number of doses that are provided to people," Dillaha said.

Remaining logistical challenges can make the wait even harder.

Most weeks, pharmacies and hospitals do not learn until Friday how many doses they will receive the next week, health care providers say.

Those doses may start arriving early in the week, or as late as Wednesday or Thursday, making it nearly impossible for pharmacists to schedule appointments.

Scheduled appointments are sometimes canceled.

"It makes it very hard," said John Vinson, head of the Arkansas Pharmacists Association, which is coordinating the vaccine rollout among pharmacies and the state Health Department. "When pharmacies are trying to schedule appointments, it is difficult to coordinate that if you do not know how much vaccine you are getting and when."

"We hope to have more consistency and predictability in coming weeks, but there are still some bumps in the road that need to be smoothed on the distribution chain," he said. "It is still a challenge."

Hospitals also have been overrun.

CHI St. Vincent, which offered vaccine clinics at its St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock and its hospital in Hot Springs, had to temporarily close those clinics after running out of vaccine doses, Bonnie Ward, CHI St. Vincent marketing and communications director, said via email.

Those two locations gave 2,000 shots Monday and Tuesday of last week.

"Those still interested in receiving the vaccine as part of Phase 1-B [age 70 and over, and school workers] are encouraged to register [online] and wait to be contacted," Ward said. "Once CHI St. Vincent receives additional vaccine shipments, we will pick up where we left off."

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, which opened a vaccination clinic Tuesday, temporarily stopped taking appointments after scheduling more than 6,500 time slots, Leslie Taylor, the vice chancellor for communications and marketing, said via email.

Between Tuesday and the end of Friday, UAMS vaccinated about 1,200 people in its main vaccination clinic and an additional 200 at two mobile clinics, Taylor said, adding that the medical center is working to reopen the appointment center sometime this week.

Information for this article was contributed by Lisa Hammersly of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Pharmacist Allison Ingram fills a syringe with covid-19 vaccine Thursday at Cornerstone Pharmacy on Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock. The pharmacy has thousands of people on its waiting list as it and other pharmacies in Arkansas deal with short supplies of the vaccine and duplicate sign-ups.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)
Pharmacist Allison Ingram fills a syringe with covid-19 vaccine Thursday at Cornerstone Pharmacy on Rodney Parham Road in Little Rock. The pharmacy has thousands of people on its waiting list as it and other pharmacies in Arkansas deal with short supplies of the vaccine and duplicate sign-ups. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)
Covid-19 shots administered
Vaccine schedule

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