When the COVID-19 pandemic was raging last fall - with unprecedented infections and hospitalizations - most of the calls coming into the Central District Health hotline concerned infection. But now, the overwhelming number of calls concern particulars surrounding the COVID vaccine.
Central District Health Director Russ Duke visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the latest data, why "decentralization" is a smarter method of distribuing the vaccine, and why he has good reason for optimism, based on the latest data.
“I am optimistic. I feel really good about the fact that we have two vaccines and possibly a third and a fourth coming online soon, which will again help with the vaccine supply situation.”
Read the full transcript below:
GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Russ Duke is here; he is the director of Central District Health, and again that covers Ada, Boise, Elmore and Valley Counties. We're going to take this rare opportunity to talk to one of the busiest people in town. Mr. Duke. Good morning.
RUSS DUKE: Good morning, George.
PRENTICE: More than a few reports have hinted at the possibility of us hitting a plateau. We're hearing little bits of information about a peak a couple of weeks ago, and the numbers getting better. Where are we right now?
DUKE: Yes, right now in our health district, what we're seeing is that the number of COVID infections, those are both confirmed and probable, have steadily declined over the past couple of weeks. And with that, we've also seen a slow but definitely a steady decline in the hospitalizations that are COVID-caused. So we're definitely in a much better position than we were in November and early December. And then, of course, I would say we're pretty similar to the case counts that we were seeing back with the first big peak we saw in July. So the cases are still high, but I'm very encouraged by what we're seeing. And I just want to add, I really appreciate all of the community effort to reduce the number of infections. I live here in Boise and have been really impressed with how many people are doing the right things we need to do to help each other through this, such as physical distancing and wearing face coverings.
PRENTICE: Let's talk about vaccine. In just a few days, Idahoans, 65 and older will be eligible for a vaccine; so the number of Idahoans eligible continues to grow. Can we talk a little bit about large venues and the possibility of mass vaccination sites, as we get closer and closer to larger sectors of the public?
DUKE: So, right now I would say our focus is very much on vaccines, the work that we've done up to this point with all the planning for vaccines, all the case investigations and contact tracing, all that continues. But now we ave vaccines on the table to manage. So, we're in week seven of the vaccine rollout. So far, Central District Health has distributed 40,000 thousand doses within our health district. That doesn't include vaccines that were direct shipped to certain pharmacies who were providing vaccines to long term care facility residents or the vaccine that is being shipped to the VA. So, of course, I think we would all like to see a lot more vaccine being available, but that's not occurring just yet. We're still getting about 6000 doses per week on average. So when it -omes to mass vaccination clinics or as some are referring to them as high through-put vaccination clinics, our preference, just because this is a highly infectious respiratory virus, is to use a decentralized approach. So as of this morning, we have 91 clinics and pharmacies ready to provide vaccines that are signed up and ready to go. We have about 18 more that are in the queue awaiting processing by the Department of Health and Welfare. So I'm not really concerned about getting the vaccine out and getting it into the arms of the people who want it. Quite frankly, we just need more vaccine.
PRENTICE: So if you had your druthers, though, we would not necessarily have large sites like Bronco Stadium or the fairgrounds, things like that.
DUKE: Correct. Just from a public health perspective, we think it makes more sense for people to go to their primary care providers or go to their pharmacist to receive the vaccine that will avoid large gatherings and all the complexities associated with that. And we think our capacity is more than adequate. Again, we have 91 sites, multiple vaccinators at each of those sites. And I think especially based on the supply we're getting today, and even if it ramps up, I think we're in a real good position to to get the vaccine into the arms of people who want to efficiently and safely.
PRENTICE: You and your colleagues field questions all day, every day. What are people asking?
DUKE: Yeah, it's interesting, so we do have a call center set up that takes literally hundreds of calls per day, and that's been really helpful, I think, for the for the public. So I would say up until recently, a lot of the questions were around exposure to all types of different exposure scenarios. And what do I need to do? And then what's the timeline for isolation and quarantine? Now, that has shifted in a really big way to when can I get the vaccine and where can I get the vaccine. So, you know, I'm glad to hear that. There's certainly a lot of interest, but most of the conversations we're having now are really around the vaccines.
PRENTICE: So is the answer, “Well, where do I get my flu vaccination?” Is that the answer?
DUKE: You know, I have not heard that, but I think that's really on target. If you typically go see your primary care provider, your physician, to get the flu vaccine, you should be communicating with them right now about whatever your circumstances are and whatever priority group you follow in to make sure you're clear on. Number one, are they planning to provide the vaccine when they get it? And then maybe some anticipated timelines, which is anybody's guess right now. Obviously, if you're in group one or group two point one, you can get the vaccine. You're eligible as long as the providers have it. Now, recognizing there will be people out there who maybe don't have a primary care provider where they routinely get care or a pharmacy, that they routinely get their prescriptions filled out. So they need to be to be looking for information. We're certainly going to be making it more readily available on our website as the providers who are getting the vaccine today and then those are signed up to get it. And that's who people need to make contact with to make sure they they have an avenue to get it when it's available.
PRENTICE: I want to talk a little bit about facts and the importance of facts. And something struck me yesterday. Someone with a pretty large microphone on the floor of the Idaho Legislature said, “If you look at the facts and numbers, by all means, the sick emergency is over. There may be a debate over whether we still want to keep getting federal relief money. That's a different story. But the pandemic is over.” And that's a quote. That's not true, is it?
DUKE: I would say we're in a much better position than we were a month and a half ago, but by no means is the pandemic over. We have no idea what the future holds for us. We're starting to hear about different variants appearing around the world and then inevitably they end up here in the United States. So, you know, I think that we're going to, again, in a very good position, much better than we were. But we're far from being over the pandemic. And I expect that based on the amount of vaccine we get in our state and the uptake, which is another factor that has to be taken into consideration, that it's going to be late spring before we can really feel more comfortable with where we're at. But as far as face coverings and physical distancing, I wouldn't put a timeline on that, because if we have another wave, for example, in April timeframe, then then we're going to have a lot more on our hands than than than the suggestion that this is over back to normal.
PRENTICE: I don't want to bury the headline here. I listen to you often. And my sense is I'm hearing optimism in your voice.
DUKE: Yeah, I am optimistic. I feel really good about the fact that we have two vaccines and possibly a third and a fourth coming online soon, which will again help with the vaccine supply situation. And I'm very encouraged by what we're seeing with the data. But if you were to ask me in September how I'm feeling about it, I was feeling good in September, but not good at all in November.
PRENTICE: But trends are in our favor right now and we have to stay smart right now.
DUKE: I think staying smart, continuing to take the precautions that we've been doing all along, it appears to be working well. On top of that, we have the vaccines slow but steady. So I think we're in a really good position. But it's not time to give up by any means.
PRENTICE: He is Russ Duke, director of Central District Health. And I'm grateful for a few minutes of your time this morning.
DUKE: Thank you, George. It was very good to talk with you.
Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren
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