TOPEKA — Lee Norman, the state’s top health officer, said Thursday the actual number of Kansans who have received the COVID-19 vaccine is probably twice the figure reflected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s online tracker.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment has pushed all the available doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines out to 270 sites in all 105 counties for swift use, Norman said. The state has received about 100,000 doses already with 34,000 arriving every week.
“People are not sitting on the vaccines and keeping it in storage,” Norman said. “They’re getting it into people’s arms.”
The CDC system initially showed Kansas lagging behind the rest of the country in the rollout of COVID-19. The state’s ranking has improved, but health officials still can’t say how many people have actually been inoculated.
Norman said hospitals typically don’t administer vaccines and their staff needed to be trained on how to enter data into the CDC system. Because many hospitals have struggled with staffing shortages while treating patients, data entry wasn’t a priority.
KDHE has recorded 3,027 deaths from COVID-19 through nine months of the pandemic. Thousands more have been hospitalized and hundreds of thousands of Kansas were infected with the virus.
Gov. Laura Kelly, answering reporters questions in a news conference Thursday at the Statehouse, defended her administration’s decision to include prisoners in the second phase of the vaccine rollout.
For now, vaccines are earmarked for health care workers, nursing home residents, and workers who are critical to the pandemic response. This first phase is expected to be complete by February.
The second phase will expand access to the vaccine to people in congregate settings, which includes correctional facilities, homeless shelters, and child care centers.
Kelly said the decision to include prisoners was based on CDC guidelines. People living closely together are especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus. Additionally, Kelly said, inmates interact with the public through work release programs, and other people enter prisons.
“It was all based on science and public health,” the governor said.
She said the administration added to the second phase people who are ages 65 and older as a response to concerns raised about giving the vaccine to prisoners first.
The third phase of the vaccine rollout will apply to people who are ages 16-64 with are pregnant or have severe medical risks, such as cancer, diabetes or heart conditions. Phase four will cover the same age group with less severe risks, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, liver disease and dementia.
The rest of the population will be vaccinated in the fifth and final phase.
Timing for each phase will depend on the available supply of vaccines as distributed by the federal government.
“My administration will make our decisions based on what the doctors, the public health experts and the science tells us, not politics,” Kelly said. “I know the question on everyone’s mind right now is, ‘When will I be able to receive the vaccine?’ That answer will depend on when and how many doses we receive from the federal government.”
With many still hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Kansas medical experts say efforts to increase public awareness about the benefits and possible risks of the immunization are critical to slowing the spread of the virus.
Steven Stites, chief medical officer at The University of Kansas Health System, said the number of opt-outs is concerning. At the health system, about 30% of workers are declining the vaccine, he said.
“We need to work on our public campaign to talk about how safe the vaccination is,” Stites said. “People aren’t dying from the vaccination, but look at how many people are dying from coronavirus. There’s just no question about what is your better choice.”
Experts estimate close to 90% of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity” from the virus.
Doctors at KU Med are working to dispel some concerns with the vaccination. One common worry is possible allergic reactions.
Marissa Love, of KU Health System, said severe allergic reactions from the COVID-19 vaccine are incredibly rare.
“The data shows it’s about one in about a million that have an allergic reaction that is severe,” Love said. “Populations with allergies to a food, oral medication or an insect sting, they are not allergic to anything component of the vaccine.”
Love said symptoms of a severe allergic reaction would likely surface 15 to 30 minutes after the vaccine is administered. For those concerned about a possible reaction, she recommended contacting an allergist.