COVID-19 Vaccine Supplies Remain Limited, but Officials Say Nebraska Is on Track to Expand Access

Jan. 22, 2021, 6:47 p.m. ·

(Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Efforts to get Nebraskans vaccinated against the coronavirus are progressing differently across the state. While 15 public health districts have already started their next phase of vaccinations, the rest — including departments in heavily populated areas like Lincoln and Omaha — are on track to finish vaccinating long term care residents and healthcare workers by early February.

The slight lag is partially due to ongoing limited availability of COVID-19 vaccines, mirroring other parts of the country where demand continues to outpace available supplies. But while some states have been forced to cancel vaccine appointments, Nebraska state and public health officials are still expecting to hit their goals outlined in the state’s vaccination plan in coming weeks.

Susan Bockrath, Executive Director of the Nebraska Association of Local Health Directors, says some areas have taken longer to finish up early vaccinations because of population differences between rural and urban areas of the state.

"Omaha heavily skews heavily towards folks who are first responders, who are frontline medical and healthcare workers, and so you have a lot of people who fit that Phase 1A candidate criteria," she explained.

"I've had a couple of health departments who've commented that this is the only time in recorded memory that they can say being a healthcare shortage area is actually a benefit because even though their allocations are tiny, they've moved down the phasing a little bit quicker."

Seniors in care facilities are still being vaccinated through a federal pharmacy partnership program with contracts with Walgreens, CVS, and Community Pharmacy to supply doses to over 428 facilities in Nebraska. The state has allocated 46,800 primary doses and 35,102 second doses to senior communities and are all expected to be administered by the end of next week.

Requests for appointments under the new Phase 1B have exploded in many parts of the state, prioritizing people over 65, those with certain high-risk conditions, first responders, teachers, and "critical infrastructure workers," including food processing plant employees.

With vaccines limited nationwide since the CDC began distribution in December, Ricketts says the state anticipated long waitlists in its vaccine planning for Phase 1B and the general public. It's not clear yet when all Nebraskans can count on having access to vaccination.

"We are getting pretty much what we were promised ever since the second week of December, so there really hasn't been a change to the plan … by definition, if we've got a fixed supply, it's going to take longer to get through that," he said.

"We are prioritizing the right people as the people who are going to be most at risk for this, and just continue to urge people to be patient."

Departments across the state are feeling the pinch. The East Central Health District recently wrote in a Facebook post that despite only receiving "usually 100 doses" of vaccines per week, there are "literally thousands of people on our list waiting for immunizations."

But while the process will take time, Incident Commander Angie Lane at the Department of Health and Human Services did not express concerns that Nebraska's allocations would falter in the coming weeks as the state expands eligibility.

"With our current allocations of approximately 94,000 a month, we calculate the 1B population to be approximately 500,000 people," she said. "Using a 75% uptake factor, it would take approximately four months to get through phase 1B."

Ricketts later pointed to "directional data" showing vaccine participation among urban healthcare workers currently hovers between 70% and 80%, while figures in rural areas are between 50% and 60%.

There's a chance Nebraska's allocations could increase in the coming months, which could speeding up the state's plans. The Biden Administration is currently trying to increase the country's supply of doses, including using the Defense Production Act to compel companies to prioritize vaccine orders.

Pfizer and Moderna have pledged to increase production, and another vaccine from Johnson & Johnson could soon see approval by the FDA, which would open up a third source of shots for states to distribute.

Ricketts says Nebraska would happily ramp up its vaccination efforts if supply increases.

"I've told that to the federal government as well: if it gives more supply, we will find ways to be able to get into people's arms."

You can review statewide vaccination data through the Department of Health and Human Services' data dashboard.