Healthcare workers across the country have started receiving COVID-19 vaccines, but doctors and nurses at some of the top hospitals in the country are sounding the alarm and demanding that vaccine distribution be unfair and a chaotic ‘free-for-all’.
At hospitals in Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, California and elsewhere, medical professionals say that those with the most exposure to COVID-19 patients are not always the first to be vaccinated. And others who had little or no contact with COVID-19 patients received vaccinations.
“It definitely feels a bit like a slap in the face,” says Jennifer DeVincent, who has been a neonatal intensive care unit in the prestigious Mass General Brigham hospital system for 16 years and attends the deliveries to coronavirus-positive mothers.
At Mass General Brigham, the plan was for hospital staff to use an app to report for vaccinations. All are sorted into different “waves” meant to prioritize those at greatest risk. However, the plan is based on the code of honor, and internal emails received by NPR instruct that employees should be ‘self-policing’.
There were problems from the beginning. The app crashed when too many people tried to register at the same time. When it was up and running again, all the appointments were snapped up within minutes. DeVincent cared for a patient all the time. Some night service workers at the mass general, Brigham, woke up and learned that they had fallen asleep by announcing the new system and the sign-in windows.
“It’s turned into a free-for-all,” DeVincent said. “Those who work the most have had the hardest time making an appointment because you can’t always sign up at that exact moment.”
DeVincent said her frustration turned to anger when she realized exactly who was getting the shots: some of the first to be vaccinated were managers, coordinators and others who did not care for practical patients.
“It makes me feel terrible that someone is feeling something less than valuable,” said Paul Biddinger, medical director of emergency preparedness at General Mass Brigham. He acknowledged the challenges and miscommunication, saying they had better manage expectations, given the limited number of doses available. However, he said the code of honor was needed for an organization with more than 80,000 staff members.
“It’s actually relatively complicated to determine who works where,” he said. “We have staff who move between our hospitals and work in different roles in different hospitals.”
Biddinger went through the data and said that it is relatively rare for people to jump the line and usually have a misunderstanding. He said they are working on clarifying the guidelines and resolving issues in the app.
While vaccination roll-out at many hospitals has gone smoothly, similar challenges have arisen in places like New York-Presbyterian and Stanford Medicine.
In Arizona, Maricopa County, the provincial government is responsible for distribution. While the province is trying to investigate and prioritize health care workers based on various risk factors, many have been trying to find solutions. Rumors were mounting about a link that was supposed to be private, but that someone could make an appointment. Same with a phone number. One doctor, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, called the deployment of Maricopa County a bit disorganized and ripe for exploitation. “
In New York, a physician attached to Northwell Health performed 10 or more COVID-19 tests a day on patients but could not get a vaccine appointment.
“It’s really very upsetting,” said the doctor, who also asked for anonymity for fear that her right of abode would be denied. “During this whole pandemic, I have never felt so overwhelmed as now.”
The doctor said Northwell – a network of 23 hospitals and 74,000 employees – did not share much information. The main message, according to the doctor, is: “Wait your turn, then you will be invited when you are invited.” “
While he waited, the doctor saw colleagues, such as radiologists, post vaccination selfies on social media. “Many of these physicians are people who work remotely or work in fields where they do not treat COVID patients every day,” the doctor said. “There seems to be no rhyme or reason for who is vaccinated.”
But Mark Jarrett pushed back and insisted there was a detailed implementation plan. As the chief quality officer and deputy medical chief at Northwell, he said: ‘This is a monumental task we have never had to do before.’
He said they not only take into account who has the most exposure to COVID-19 patients, but also many other factors. He said, for example, that a hospital can only have two interventional radiologists. Because they do not want both to get sick, they can move in line. Or because the vaccine can have side effects that could make someone work the next day, Northwell makes sure an entire unit is not vaccinated at once. The system also takes into account how severe the outbreak is in a particular hospital.
Jarrett admitted that the system was not perfect. And he said, they are trying to adapt as they learn about the issues. But the doctor at Northwell’s said that treating COVID-19 patients every day is stressful – and knowing that a vaccine is available but that you cannot access it only adds to the challenges that frontline workers face.
Copyright NPR 2020.