HONESDALE, PA — Despite its name, Wayne Memorial Health System’s coverage area extends well beyond the geographic bounds of Wayne County. This fact has been of particular importance to local officials during the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’re trying to take care of Pike County. We have our Carbondale office which is in northern Lackawanna County, we have our Forest City office in Susquehanna County,” said Dr. James Cruse, Wayne Memorial Community Health Center’s (WMCHC) medical director. “Forest City’s not getting covered very well by Susquehanna County; most of the vaccines are going to the northern part of the county.”
So, it was more than welcome news when Wayne Memorial received its largest allocation of the vaccine yet from the PA Department of Health on March 15, getting a total of 2,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine. The extra supply came as a result of the Pike County Commissioners and PA Sen. Lisa Baker (PA-20) making the case that Pike County, which lacks its own hospital or health department, was being underserved by the Department of Health.
“We are grateful that the Department of Health has heard our pleas and has agreed to supply us with these new additional shipments of vaccine,” WMCHC executive director Frederick Jackson said at the time. “To date, there has been a clear historical disparity between rural counties and urban areas. The state’s own data shows our area are vaccinated 30 to 50 percent less than their urban and suburban counterparts.”
The health system wasted no time in getting those shots into people’s arms, setting up a 1,000-dose clinic in Pike and 1,000-dose clinic in Wayne the same week. WMCHC staff administered 1,900 vaccines over the week, Cruse said. Much of the challenge is logistical, registering the roughly half of vaccine recipients who aren’t former hospital patients, and getting everybody’s information sent to the state. Wayne Memorial has hired additional staff to deal with the registration side of things.
Registration has been a contentious issue between residents and the state throughout the rollout process. While many have called for a central registration system, something PA’s Department of Health does not provide, the state usually responds that this would take longer than just allowing individual providers to handle it themselves. Cruse agrees with the state on that point.
“[Recipients] would still have to be registered in our electronic medical record, so you would be talking about writing software interfaces with the state to interface with—I don’t know how many—medical record software companies,” Cruse said. “That would be too complicated, it probably does work better like this.”
To avoid getting overwhelmed with phone calls to schedule vaccine appointments, Wayne Memorial is urging eligible residents to get scheduled for future clinics via email. Sixty-five-plus residents who might not have internet access should first seek assistance through the Area Agency on Aging, which has also hired additional staff during this time, Cruse said. As a last resort, the health system does have a vaccine hotline people can call: 570/253-8197.
But online registration is the safest bet. For each clinic, Cruse said 80 percent of patients are scheduled online and 20 percent is reserved for phone call scheduling.
To handle such high volumes of patients, Wayne Memorial is utilizing the same software that the Himalayan Institute uses to schedule yoga classes, a far more affordable option than most medical software.
“It’s basically set up as one-hour classes, as yoga classes would be, and we have so many slots available for that ‘class,’” Cruse said. “Folks can go on and choose a time slot and they schedule for that one hour time slot.”
Unsurprisingly, the time slots go quickly. Cruse said that, within an hour of being available, the Pike clinic had been fully registered.
When River Reporter last checked in with Wayne Memorial for a vaccine update, Cruse said that they had finished their 1a category and were ready to start with 1b. However, that was before the 1a category was expanded to include many more residents. Now, he’s not sure when they’ll be finished with the 1a group, but with the state promising to continue providing dosages at this rate, he expects the health system will get through its 7,000-person backlog—people who are registered but have not received the vaccine yet—over the next three or four weeks.
In the meantime, Wayne Memorial is continuing to lobby for more supply.
“We’re going to try to get more vaccine for Forest City in particular,” Cruse said. “We could use as much vaccine as they can give us.”
He also said that while more state and federal organization with the rollout would have been helpful—especially at the beginning of the distribution process—overall a rural, local hospital is best equipped to serve a rural, local population.
“We know where the underserved populations are, we have ideas about how to reach underserved populations that they just really aren’t going to understand on a state level,” he said. “I think grassroots is better.”