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'There was no plan': Private health care workers shortchanged by vaccine distribution

In Ohio, nonaffiliated workers “have been told to wait until pharmacies receive the vaccine, despite their evident and continued exposure risk,” according to a petition launched by a Cincinnati-based pediatrician.
Image: Rady Children's Hospital receives Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in San Diego
A hospital employee gets a dose of the Moderna vaccine at the Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego on Dec. 22.Bing Guan / Reuters

A San Diego anesthesiologist whose job puts her at high risk of catching Covid-19 says the difference between herself and a hospital administrator is this — the administrator probably got the coronavirus vaccine before she did.

Dr. Jessica Hollingsworth contends the wording of the federal and state guidelines for distributing the vaccine has enabled big hospital chains to inoculate their employees “regardless of role” while private or contracted health care workers like herself who work with coronavirus patients are stuck at the back of the vaccination line.

Specifically, Hollingsworth cited the guideline which states that if the vaccine is scarce, which has been the case ever since the rollout began last month, then health departments can reallocate the shots based on “type of facility” — as well as the role the recipient plays in the pandemic fight.

“In San Diego, vaccine has been given to IT workers, billing administration, tele-workers, PR staff, engineering department, etc. that are affiliated with a hospital conglomerate but do not have and never will have responsibilities that involve direct patient care contact with COVID+ or otherwise ill patients,” Hollingsworth said in a letter she sent on New Year’s Eve to the California Department of Public Health that she shared with NBC News.

Asked if she got a response from the California Department of Public Health, Hollingsworth said, “I got an automated response that they’re on vacation until Jan. 4. Who takes a vacation during a pandemic?”

What’s happening to independent doctors in Southern California appears to also be happening in other parts of the country. And they have plenty of reason to worry.

Nearly 344,000 health care workers have come down with Covid-19 infections since the start of the pandemic and 1,177 have died, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures.

In response to an inquiry from NBC News about whether the current guidelines exclude private health care workers, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said the agency has “further clarified guidelines that expand the availability of vaccines to a larger group of health care workers.”

“California has vaccinated more people that any other state in the country, and has done it with a focus on health equity and serving vulnerable and high risk populations,” he said in his statement. “We are working with county public health authorities to determine how the state can support accelerated vaccination administration.”

Meanwhile, San Diego County’s website said it is following federal and state guidelines and “also working with the community to make sure the vaccine is distributed equitably.”

Hollingsworth is not directly affiliated with a specific San Diego hospital, she is independently contracted to work at various private surgery centers in the county where doctors with hospital affiliations often perform operations. She said she lucked out and got the shot last month while attending a vaccination clinic sponsored by Sharp HealthCare, which operates the big hospitals in San Diego.

“They said they would give it to me because I help support surgeons affiliated with Sharp,” she said. “But other anesthesiologists got denied the same day.”

One of them was a San Diego physician who said his second attempt to get a shot after Christmas was also denied, even though he had once been affiliated with Sharp HealthCare and continues to work with surgeons who are on staff.

“I spoke with a very nice executive who was very pleasant but who said, ‘So very sorry, we’re only doing it for Sharp employees’,” the physician said, asking not to be identified so as not to jeopardize his chances of eventually getting a vaccine. “I said I understand you’re doing your staff people, but not all of them are doctors.”

Sharp HealthCare spokesman John Cihomsky said they only get a limited amount of Covid-19 vaccines and under the current guidelines, “we are allowed to vaccinate all our employees.”

As for the doctors left out in the cold, he said, “If they are not affiliated with SharpCare, we can’t vaccinate them.”

In Ohio, Cincinnati-based pediatrician Dr. Alyssa Piljan-Gentle has launched a petition to convince the state government to “vaccinate all health care workers, especially if they are not associated with a hospital system.”

“These independent offices are being ignored and left to fend for themselves, despite taking in a large portion of the COVID care during this pandemic,” her petition states. “There was no plan for these providers.”

While some states have opened vaccination sites where any health care worker who deals directly with Covid-19 patients "can schedule themselves to be vaccinated without a prior invitation,” in Ohio nonaffiliated workers “have been told to wait until pharmacies receive the vaccine, despite their evident and continued exposure risk,” the petition states.

Piljan-Gentle, whose practice is affiliated with the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said she has no idea when or where she’ll get vaccinated.

“We have a very good relationship with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, but they did not get many doses,” she said.

Based on conversations she’s had via various doctors’ social media groups across the country, “what I’m seeing is the distribution of the vaccine and who is getting the vaccine first is variable by state,” Piljan-Gentle said.

“For example, my brother-in-law in Texas works at UT Health Austin as an IT person and he got the vaccine on the first day, the rationale being that he sometimes goes into areas where they treat Covid patients,” she said.

Piljan-Gentle said that while she doesn’t begrudge her brother-in-law or anybody else getting the vaccine, the first doses should go to the people who are most at risk.

“When I am examining my patients, I’m right in their face and when they cough I’m directly exposed to their germs,” she said. “I wear a mask and shield, of course. But I’m still more at risk than many hospital workers who have already got the vaccine.”

In Vermont, Dr. Mario Estrin Trabulsy and other community health providers not affiliated with the state’s major hospital systems started getting Covid-19 vaccines in recent days. But that happened, she said, only after they “raised a stink” about what the University of Vermont Medical Center, which dominates health care in the state, was doing.

“The state gave them the vaccine and told them they were responsible for vaccinating their staff, as well as the health care providers in the community,” said Trabulsy, a former emergency care doctor who now treats students at the University of Vermont. “I realized they were hogging the vaccine after I learned by my son’s 20-something girlfriend, who works in a call center and is in good health, had gotten the vaccine the first week it came out.”

“I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “Here I am, a 55-year-old breast cancer survivor working every day with college students and they were telling me we’d have to wait several more weeks to get a vaccine.”

Last week, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said he was “made aware” of the situation and that they were taking steps to ensure that front-line workers got the shots rather than management and other “back of the house” employees.

“That’s not what we had in mind,” he said.

As of Monday, UVM had vaccinated 4,347 employees and 1,931 community health care workers. In addition, 13 have received their second dose, with more expected Tuesday.