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People 65 and older, front-line workers will get COVID-19 vaccine next in Delaware

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

After vaccinating health workers, long-term care staff and long-term care residents, the next people to get the vaccine in Delaware will be front-line essential workers and residents 65 and older.

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, announced the state's decision during Gov. John Carney's weekly coronavirus press briefing on Tuesday.

Front-line essential workers include first responders such as firefighters and police, as well as teachers, U.S. Postal Service workers and grocery store workers. It also includes corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, day care workers and public transit workers.

But these people likely won't start getting the vaccine until mid- to late January due to the limited supply of the vaccine.

"Please be patient with us. There's just not enough vaccine for everyone right now," Rattay said, adding that employers need to start planning how they will administer their vaccine to workers.

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health gives an update on the state's coronavirus response in Wilmington on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 at the Carvel State Building.

People who work in Delaware but live in a neighboring state will likely be eligible for the vaccine in Delaware because they will likely get it through their employer.

People ages 65 and older will be asked to contact their health care provider directly near the end of January to talk about their options for getting the vaccine. People in this age group who are still working may be eligible to get it through their employer as well. 

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According to a Division of Public Health spokesman, people in this age group may also be able to get vaccinated through participating pharmacies or a Public Health clinic if their health care provider is not enrolled in the state's vaccine program.

Public health officials estimate it will take about five weeks to vaccinate all health care workers, long-term care staff and long-term care residents because Delaware is receiving the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines at just several thousand doses at a time in weekly shipments, creating a lag for the estimated 70,000 health care workers and long-term care residents in Delaware.

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The state is making decisions on who gets vaccinated first based on recommendations from an ethics advisory group with representatives from Delaware’s largest health care providers and other state agencies. The group based its recommendations on federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

A dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is prepared as ChristianaCare starts vaccinating its approximately 13,500 employees Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, at Christiana Hospital.

While the CDC recommends vaccinating people aged 75 and up before targeting younger groups, the state has decided to expand that group to people ages 65 and up because the average age of Black and Hispanic people who have died of COVID-19 in Delaware is 74 and 66, respectively. The average age of white Delawareans who have died of the virus is 83.

"We were very concerned that we would miss getting to protect some of our most vulnerable populations," Rattay said.

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The ethics group has to meet again to decide on recommendations for the next phases. The CDC committee recommends that, after this first round, the next groups to get vaccinated should be people who have underlying medical conditions that would increase the risk of death from COVID-19, and other essential workers such as those in food service, transportation, construction, communications and public health.

LPN Jennifer Hroncich, left administers the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Silver Lake Center nurse Kolubah Goniah Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

Delaware reported 717 new COVID-19 cases as of Monday, bringing the weekly average of positive cases to 653.4. That rate, while significantly higher than the state's springtime peak of 239.3 in late April, is still lower than earlier this month when the weekly average had reached an all-time high of 822.1 on Dec. 16.

Officials worry that the Christmas holiday will serve as a "super-spreader" event similar to Thanksgiving, which officials credit to the subsequent soaring of cases and hospitalizations unseen since the start of the pandemic.

Senior Cpl. Katie Watts, left, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Lt. David Aber Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.

There are 427 people in Delaware who as of Monday are hospitalized for the virus. In total, 898 people in Delaware have died of complications related to the virus since the spring.

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Earlier this month, Carney urged residents to stay home for Christmas, stressing that the state cannot afford another surge in cases when the current rate of hospitalizations falls within the estimated 400 to 500 total beds available for patients before hospitals are considered overrun. Carney has referred to that estimate as a "moving target."

 "We'll see how we all did," Carney said.

Gov. John Carney speaks during his weekly press conference on the state of COVID-19 in Delaware on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, at the Carvel State Office Building in Wilmington.

Public health officials expect the first signs of an uptick in cases to appear right around New Year's Eve or New Year's Day and for that uptick to continue as the virus continues to spread to others.

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"We're going to be holding our breath until we get probably three weeks from now," Rattay said, adding that hospitalization increases tend to follow case increases by a few weeks.

Carney has issued restrictions in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including requiring all residents to wear masks when around people they don't live with even in private settings. He has also limited how many people can be indoors at restaurants and in other businesses, and indoor gatherings in private homes have been capped at 10 people.

Clinical educator Brittany Oakley, right, gives Dr. Kelly Abbrescia, medical director for emergency services, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Bayhealth's Kent County Campus COVID-19 vaccination clinic Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020, in Dover. The hospital began giving vaccinations to front-line employees early Tuesday morning.

Officials are now worried about New Year's Eve contributing to the further spread of the virus because house parties are considered common events that easily lead to infections.

"This is a terrible year to have in-person parties with people outside of your household," Rattay said. "On top of that, consumption of alcohol tends to make people less likely to follow social distancing rules. … Just remember: Next year's New Year's Eve is going to be better."

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The state so far has reported administering nearly 8,500 doses of the vaccine, though there is a 48-hour delay in reporting. So far, the state has received 11,700 doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 16,700 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

New Castle County paramedic 8 Matt Harman, left, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from Lt. David Aber Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.

This week, the state is getting almost 6,000 Pfizer doses that will go directly to pharmacies to give to long-term care facility residents and workers; and 8,775 more Pfizer doses for health care workers who will be getting their second shot. The state is also getting 5,800 Moderna doses this week that will also go to health care providers.

The Delaware State Department on Tuesday announced that residents and staff at the Delaware Veterans Home in Milford will be among the first people in long-term care settings to get vaccinated in the state starting Wednesday morning.

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On Tuesday morning, the first group of New Castle County paramedics got their first dose of the Moderna vaccine, becoming the first group of New Castle County employees to get vaccinated.

The vaccine has created a beacon of hope in Delaware amid the dark winter. On Wednesday, Kent County EMS officers administered the vaccine to public officials and paramedics.

John Tinger, administrative officer for Kent County EMS, administers the vaccine to Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Terry Pepper on Wednesday, Dec. 23.

One of those who got vaccinated was Kent County Commissioner Terry Pepper, who is also the county governing body's vice president and chair of the public safety committee. He said he hopes most people will get the shot.

"I know everybody won't want to take it," Pepper said. "And a lot of people are probably apprehensive about getting it, but that's the main reason that when they asked for a volunteer from Levy Court, that I put my hand up and said I'd be glad to be the first one to get it. I want all the county employees to take advantage of this and all Kent Countians. Take advantage of it. So we can get back to normal."

Kent County Public Safety Chief Colin Faulkner also got the shot on Wednesday and hailed the vaccine's arrival as a relief. 

John Tinger, administrative officer for Kent County EMS, administers the vaccine to Kent County Public Safety Chief Colin Faulkner on Wednesday, Dec. 23.

"It’s like taking the pressure valve off of a pot of steaming water," Faulkner said. "By getting the vaccine and having the vaccine available to all our first responders, it’s like popping that pressure valve and you can come out and breathe."

Emily Lytle contributed to this report.

Contact Sarah Gamard at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.