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St. Louis hospitals scramble to vaccinate: 'More labor-intensive than anything I've ever seen'

St. Louis hospitals scramble to vaccinate: 'More labor-intensive than anything I've ever seen'

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ST. LOUIS — Area hospitals, COVID-19 vaccine now in hand, began on Tuesday the herculean task of delivering doses into the arms of thousands of front-line staff, a job of crushing urgency.

Hospitals are already stretched. The number of coronavirus patients has doubled since the beginning of November and tripled since mid-October. That’s left health systems planning a vaccine rollout without enough hands to do the work. Mercy has already mobilized staff in other roles — pharmacists and administrators, for instance — to help deliver vaccinations. More than 100 SSM Health employees have volunteered for vaccine duty. BJC HealthCare is looking to partners at Washington University to help out.

“This is more labor-intensive than anything I’ve ever seen,” said Mike Lauer, BJC HealthCare’s executive director of emergency preparedness.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization on Friday for the vaccine, manufactured by drug giant Pfizer and German partner BioNTech. Shipments arrived by the thousands on Monday in Illinois and Missouri, bound for area hospitals and assisted living facilities in coming days. Illinois expects about 100,000 doses this week; Missouri more than 51,000.

Meanwhile, Missouri on Tuesday added 2,762 new COVID-19 cases, surpassing 350,000 in total, and reported 240 new deaths, a one-day record. That pushed the state’s seven-day average of new virus deaths to 57, also a record.

Illinois reported 7,359 new cases, up from 7,214 the day before, well above any level seen this spring or summer. The state also reported 117 more deaths due to the virus.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force said area hospitals reported 100 new COVID-19 patients, up from 85 the day before, and 920 total virus patients across area facilities, up from 915 the day before. Hospitals here are operating at 84% of staffed bed capacity, the task force said, and 85% of intensive care unit capacity.

The steady rise in cases has added urgency to the vaccinations.

“Our goal was to be able to support these clinics and roll them out without taking nurses and other caregivers away from bedside,” Mercy’s chief pharmacy officer Jon Lakamp said on Monday.

At Mercy Hospital South, in south St. Louis County, 20 health care workers were vaccinated Monday, and then roughly 70 more at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, in Creve Coeur. The hospitals saw it as a “soft launch” of their vaccination programs, with the goal of ramping up on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Mercy St. Louis was vaccinating about four people every 15 minutes at eight vaccine stations, and planned to get four people every five minutes on Tuesday.

Mercy Hospital Jefferson and Mercy Hospital Washington vaccinated their first employees on Tuesday.

In total, Mercy said late Tuesday, it vaccinated 650 in the St. Louis area on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, more vaccine shipments arrived in the state, with BJC HealthCare receiving 9,750 doses of vaccine on Tuesday. In Columbia, University of Missouri Health Care said it expected its first doses to arrive Tuesday evening.

Lauer, of BJC, said a handful of health care workers will be vaccinated on Wednesday, and the system will launch full-scale vaccinations on Thursday.

In Missouri, BJC has notified 8,800 people that they are eligible for the vaccine, and more will be added in the coming days. The system will aim to vaccinate about 1,000 people each day in the state.

“The entire COVID vaccination planning team, although I think that they’re worn out, they know that we are on the cusp of kind of a historic moment. Something that in health care we will probably — hopefully — never ever see again,” Lauer said.

SSM Health is expecting its first doses to arrive next week.

Mike Bowers, chief operating officer for SSM Health St. Louis and southern Illinois, said roughly 8,000 to 9,000 employees are in the system’s first group for vaccinations in the region. The exact time frame is uncertain, and will depend on how many doses the system receives, but it could take as little as two to three weeks to administer the first doses to that group.

Bowers said in a survey of SSM employees, 80% of respondents said they were interested in receiving the vaccine.

He recalled the vaccination efforts of H1N1 in 2009, but said that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has brought new challenges, like the ultra-cold storage required for the Pfizer vaccine.

“I don’t know that anybody,” Bowers said, “has actually ever experienced anything like this, on a global scale.”

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