PORT ANGELES — Olympic Medical Center has secured an ultra-low temperature freezer and is set to receive 975 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as soon as approval is received from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Jennifer Burkhardt, Olympic Medical Center’s chief human resources officer and general counsel, discussed the initial roll out for immunizations and provided an update on how the pandemic continues to impact care providers in the Clallam County Economic Development Council’s “Coffee with Colleen” Zoom meeting Wednesday.
Jefferson Healthcare in Port Townsend expects to receive 975 doses soon and will prioritize high-risk health care workers, first responders and nursing home personnel, said Amy Yaley, hospital spokesperson, on Wednesday.
OMC, the largest employer in Clallam County at 1,600 positions, does not plan to make the COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for staff members.
“It is not mandatory. We will make this a voluntary process for our health care workers,” Burkhardt said.
“We have strict rules on PPE in place. Those requirements will continue, and we are confident we will continue to provide safe care with the PPE requirements in place.”
Burkhardt said the public shouldn’t read too much into OMC’s decision to keep immunizations voluntary for its staff members.
“There are legal requirements that still must be met before it is approved,” she said. “There may be medical accommodations where we would be unable to require the vaccine. Some employees may have privacy concerns related to the vaccine.
“What we are doing is making it broadly available and strongly encouraging people to take it.
“I don’t think under those circumstances it gives any fodder (to the idea) that the vaccine is unsafe or the public shouldn’t be taking it,” she continued. “We believe it will be healthy, and we are planning on making it convenient and accessible.”
Burkhardt said the medical center expects a good turnout for immunizations.
“Our flu vaccination rate is about 96 percent with our staffers,” she said.
Approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the form of an emergency use authorization could come within days, and the first batch of vaccines, which are administered in two doses about three weeks apart, could arrive next week, Burkhardt said.
The second batch of immunizations would follow before the end of the month, and weekly shipments would begin in January.
Vaccinations would be provided to OMC staff in public-facing departments first.
“The emergency department, our anesthesia providers, the intensive care unit, our hospitalist walk-in clinic, other clinical staff,” Burkhardt said of which employees would have the first opportunity for the inoculation.
“That’s about 500 to 600 staff, and we will still have additional vaccination resources for others at OMC.
“We are preparing potentially to offer it to those in the community as we partner with public health. At this point, we are hearing we will offer it to EMS staff and other first responders who are prioritized.”
Burkhardt said long-term care facilities in the county are set to receive vaccines through a separate federal distribution program.
OMC employees also will receive the vaccine on a staggered schedule.
“[The state] Department of Health is recommending we stagger the vaccinations so we don’t want to have entire departments have the vaccination administered in the event that staff might experience side effects and we would have the potential of having staff out of work,” Burkhardt said.
“What we are planning right now is a fairly sophisticated staggering system where we will deliver the first dose of the vaccine across a certain number of departments but only a percentage of those departments.
“And then, with the second dose of the vaccine being administered up to 21 days later, we will be able to monitor the symptoms and see how it affects our staff. We are hearing the effects are reportedly a bit greater after the second dose.
“We are really optimistic regarding the freezer storage capacity and what we are hearing regarding the shipments. Very hopeful that this provides the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Burkhardt said OMC’s Intensive Care Unit capacity was “stable” in the face of a second wave of COVID-19 cases on the North Olympic Peninsula and that the facility has added additional care capacity during the pandemic.
“Where we were set up to receive 67 patients previously, we are now up to 83 beds for our hospital,” Burkhardt said.
“And we have plans in place to convert the south portion of our emergency department into an airborne illness unit. That would be entirely blocked off, and we would have beds on the second floor in the case that Clallam County sees a tremendous surge.”
Financially, Burkhardt said OMC is on good footing, but COVID-related expenses are increasing rapidly.
“When I spoke in October, September was a break-even month,” Burkhardt said. “With COVID-related expenses climbing, we lost $1.7 million in October.
“Looking at our expenses, most were related to drive-up testing, including the cost of the labs and courier fees to shuttle the testing back and forth.
“Our CFO [Lorraine Cannon] did an analysis for the year, and costs are up $6.8 million directly related to COVID, and she estimates that number will top $9 million by the end of the year.”
OMC operates with a $240 million annual budget.
Burkhardt expressed her belief that a 2018 budget proviso in Medicaid reimbursement funding for OMC in Port Angeles and Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen would be extended during the upcoming state legislative session.
She also hopes a change in administration at the federal level will see the restoration of Medicare reimbursement for off-site clinics, a move that would add $47 million to OMC’s budget over the next 10 years.
Medicaid is funded mainly by the federal government and run by state governments.
Medicare is a federal health insurance program for people 65 and older and for younger people with disabilities.
Reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected].