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Jim Kenyon: Upper Valley seniors just waiting for their shot

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 1/9/2021 10:50:33 PM
Modified: 1/9/2021 10:50:16 PM

Bob Gasser, an 83-year-old retired attorney, wants to start traveling again. He’d also like to get back to seeing friends during workouts at the gym. Tango lessons are on his bucket list.

But like nearly everyone else — no matter their age — Gasser won’t feel safe about picking up where life pretty much stopped 10 months ago due to the coronavirus pandemic until he gets the COVID-19 vaccine.

And like a lot of people, Gasser wonders why government and health officials are keeping the public largely in the dark about the vaccine rollout, which began Dec. 14.

Along with checking news reports, he’s asked two of his health care providers and a pharmacist about “how to get on a list” and where to sign up. “Nobody seems to know anything,” he said. “It’s frustrating.”

Gasser, who lives in Grantham, isn’t looking to jump ahead of anyone in the vaccine line. He agrees that medical workers, first responders and nursing home residents should get priority.

But data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that states, including New Hampshire and Vermont, are sitting on thousands of doses.

On Friday, Bloomberg News, which tracks federal vaccine data, posted a state-by-state chart that showed less than one-third (7.1 million) of the 22.1 million doses distributed nationally had been administered.

In round numbers, Vermont had given 22,300 of its 48,600 allotted doses and New Hampshire had administered 41,900 of its 89,400. Both states were ahead of the national average (31.9%) at getting the first round into people’s arms. New Hampshire ranked seventh (46.8%) and Vermont was eighth (46%).

Still, unless we’re grading on a curve, it’s no cause for celebration.

On Wednesday, Valley News staff writer Nora Doyle-Burr wrote about the Earl M. Bourdon Centre, an 80-unit subsidized apartment complex for seniors in Claremont, where 21 residents and five workers had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Because the Bourdon Centre is an apartment complex — not a nursing home or assisted living facility— its residents and workers are not a top priority.

“Places like (Bourdon) are falling through the cracks,” Anne Sosin, program director at Dartmouth College’s Center for Global Health Equity, told me.

Older people living in close quarters are among the most vulnerable. The workers who help with their care tend not to be highly paid, which means they often have multiple jobs, increasing their chances of contracting the virus. “It’s a perfect storm,” Sosin said.

So what’s the holdup?

No doubt the feds can be faulted for not giving states sufficient financial help and direction to launch the largest immunization campaign in U.S. history.

There’s also some concern about “how quickly the vaccines are being moved down to the states,” Sosin told me.

States could be hoarding (my word, not hers) doses out of caution as well. They don’t want to be caught with empty storage freezers when it comes time for the second round.

Leaders of the federal Operation Warp Speed had predicted that 20 million people would receive the first round of doses by the end of December. With the projection falling far short, states appear reluctant to say much about when and where vaccines will be available to the general public. Keeping people’s expectation levels low seems to be a strategy.

Last week, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu released a timeline — if you can call it that — for when residents might expect their initial dose. The timeline, with its multiple phases based on age and profession to run through May, or beyond, sounds like what you’d find at a supermarket’s deli counter. Take a number.

In an email, Jake Leon, spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, told me Friday that vaccinations are “constantly occurring” and the “pace is picking up.”

As of Friday, the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health system had administered nearly 6,300 vaccines, including about 4,500 at its flagship Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. D-H has been getting two shipments a week from the state, spokeswoman Audra Burns told me. Any doses that D-H has on hand are scheduled to be used this week, she added.

Like other states, Vermont has prioritized health care workers and long-term care residents. “When there is enough vaccine available, we (will) announce when Vermonters can register for appointments,” reads the state health department’s website, but it’s “not keeping a list of eligible people.”

States are “trying to find the most equitable way to allocate scarce resources,” Sosin said. New Hampshire is also paying the price for “under-investing” in its health care safety net over the years, she added.

After talking with Sosin, I called back Gasser, whom I’ve known for a long time but haven’t seen since the pandemic.

He’s slowed down a bit in recent years. Shortly after his 80th birthday, he was diagnosed with giant cell arteritis, an inflammatory disease that’s affected his walking and balance. But even during the pandemic this winter, Gasser drives on Sunday mornings to the Witherell Recreation Center in Lebanon, where he laces up boxing gloves and works out with a trainer.

I asked Gasser if he had any ideas about how to speed up the delivery of thousands of stockpiled vaccines to older people, in particular. He mentioned the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council. The nonprofit operates eight senior centers and serves about 700 people through its Meals on Wheels program.

The Council has names and addresses for hundreds of seniors. Last fall in the throes of the pandemic, the Council set up drive-thru flu vaccine clinics. Could the drill be repeated for COVID-19 shots?

“We’d be open to that,” Executive Director Kathleen Vasconcelos said. “We certainly have the places to do it.”

A small step, for sure. At this point, however, it would be a real shot in the arm.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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