OKLAHOMA CITY — The federal government could alleviate logistical COVID-19 vaccine challenges in Oklahoma’s rural areas by reducing the number of doses included in the shot vials, a top state health official said.

Keith Reed, deputy commissioner of health, said one of the biggest “logistical challenges” rural providers currently face is the very short shelf life that the multidose vials have once opened. That makes it very difficult for small-town physicians and individual health care providers to accept vaccines and manage their inventory.

“I wish we had a better logistical option to get this vaccine in the hands of those providers, but most do not want to take a 10-dose vial or a 14-dose vial or even a six-dose vial, and get one dose out of it only to waste 80% to 90% of the vial,” Reed said. “That creates challenges for us.”

The state’s ongoing COVID-19 vaccination push, meanwhile, is focused in part on increasing access for residents by making the vaccine more widely and easily available statewide. That strategy includes putting the vaccine into the hands of medical providers around the state.

“We know that that is a good place for somebody to have the conversation about their concerns around vaccine with their individual health provider, and that’s somebody that we know most people trust,” Reed said.

However, more than 4 in 10 of the state’s 1,783 pandemic providers — medical providers who have voluntarily agreed to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to patients — are located in either Oklahoma or Tulsa counties, a CNHI News analysis of state immunization records shows.

In Health District 1 — a 10-county area that includes Woodward and the Oklahoma Panhandle — there are 60 providers administering shots. The list of providers there includes local correctional centers, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and county health departments.

Cimarron and Roger Mills counties had one vaccine provider each, according to state records. Oklahoma County had the highest number of providers at 400. That county also has the state’s highest one-dose vaccination rate at 65.3%.

In comparison, 30.2% and 37.2% of Cimarron County and Roger Mills County residents, respectively, had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose.

Outlying areas of the state, meanwhile, continue to have some of Oklahoma’s lowest COVID-19 immunization rates, according to state epidemiology records.

Dewey County, which has the state’s lowest one-dose uptake rate at 28.8%, had three providers, including the local hospital.

Reed said he’d love for Oklahoma’s pandemic providers to have single-dose vials available so that if somebody came in they could easily get vaccinated, and there would be no waste.

Reed said state health officials are not as worried now about wasted vaccine as they were earlier in the year, but now is the time when health officials are working to increase vaccine uptake one doctor’s visit at a time.

Dr. Sam Ratermann, president of the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians and a family medicine doctor with Integris Grove Hospital, said some groups, like tribal health centers, are doing a great job giving vaccines, so the state doesn’t necessarily need “every small rural physician in that same area giving out vaccines.”

But, he said physicians face a lot of hurdles and regulations surrounding how they must administer the vaccines, what type of freezer they need and how much space they must have available to store them.

“That’s not always available to every small rural clinic that’s out there,” he said. “And that’s been a big issue.”

Ratermann said the state’s strategy in a lot of outlying areas is to try to make sure the vaccine sites are available either through local hospital systems or larger organizations. Doctors not signed up to administer the vaccines have been urged to send their patients to those locations, he said.

“I personally would love to see this time next year, if not a whole lot sooner, every clinic have availability to have COVID vaccine ready to go for their patients,” Ratermann said.

Dr. David Kendrick, founder and CEO of MyHealth Access Network and the department chair of medical informatics at the University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine, said that the smaller and independent practices that are administering COVID-19 vaccines also face additional workloads based on COVID-19 vaccine reporting rules that require double data entry.

Kendrick said the state Health Department is focused on addressing that and ensuring that immunization data can flow seamlessly in both directions.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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