Private Doctors Hunt for Vaccines as Shots Go to Hospital Peers

Thousands of U.S. health-care workers are still seeking Covid-19 vaccinations even as states and cities open eligibility to people far removed from the pandemic’s front line.

SincePfizer Inc./BioNTech andModerna Inc. vaccine shipments began nationally in mid-December, the priority has been doctors, nurses and other professionals likely to come in contact with the novel coronavirus. But those unaffiliated with hospitals and major health systems — including private-practice physicians, dentists and therapists — say they’re being overlooked.

Pediatrician David Berger, with a practice in Tampa, Florida, said his patients include babies and many children with autism who have a hard time wearing masks. Still, he couldn’t snag a vaccine appointment until Jan. 15, a month after Florida made them available. He said his physician’s assistant, who “sees more sick kids than I do,” had yet to find a slot as of Sunday.

“We want to be protected,” Berger said.

Though President Joe Biden has promised to boost states’ vaccine supplies by 16%, that adds a scant 1.4 million doses nationally each week. Since mid-December, the U.S. has vaccinated just 9% of its 330 million citizens.

At the same time, guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has led governors to expand eligibility in states including New Jersey, California, New York and North Carolina. In some places, front-line health workers are jockeying for doses alongside smokers, prisoners, tax investigators, forest rangers and people 65 and older regardless of any medical condition.

“It’s very haphazard in a lot of places,” said Lee Savio Beers, president of theAmerican Academy of Pediatrics. She said some in the 67,000-member group have reported finding slots gobbled up moments after registration starts. Others have canceled patient visits to make a workday shot appointment or driven for hours in search of a vaccination site.

Unaffiliated professionals may be in greater Covid-19 danger than colleagues based in hospitals, where vaccinations are widespread, patients are tested and visitors are limited.

Of 1,004 Covid-19 deaths among U.S. medical professionals reported as of May 13, 55% were physicians, according to the University of Pennsylvania’sPerelman School of Medicine. The largest share of those doctors, 27%, included general practitioners, family medicine and primary-care specialists who typically see patients in offices.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine ordered all the state’s vaccine providers, including hospitals and pharmacies, to set aside 10% of their doses for unaffiliated health workers as of Jan. 6.

In Deer Park, New York, the dental office of Kevin Henner has lost 11 patients to Covid-19. He landed his first shot in early January at Suffolk Community College.

“It was incredibly efficient — boom, boom, boom — and everything went great, but they didn’t give us an appointment for the second one,” Henner said. With his dose due in less than a week, he said, he’s been looking to book with no success. Most of his seven staff members are just as frustrated, he said: One found an open slot, only to discover that the vaccination site had erred and had to bar non-employees.

Caitlin Liddle, a licensed clinical social worker who runs her own psychotherapy practice in Chicago, spent two weeks following mostly word-of-mouth appointment leads. “There were a few dead ends, and that was disappointing,” she said.

On Jan. 18, she scored: Liddle was among almost 1,000 health-care workers vaccinated throughOak Street Health, a physician group operating in 11 states that partnered with Chicago and Cook County to run clinics.

Eager Recipients

Oak Street’s executive medical director, Ali Khan, said he has administered hundreds of Covid-19 vaccines. While some health systems have reported hesitancy among employees, he’s finding broad acceptance from traveling nurses, nurse practitioners, infusion specialists and others who work beyond hospital walls.

“They are all standing up and saying: ‘How can I get vaccinated?’” Khan said. Even with more doses promised, he said, expanded eligibility means a potential “scarcity problem in real time” for those workers.

Suburban Cook County has about 100,000 health-care workers, and most of those yet to be vaccinated are likely unaffiliated, said Rachel Rubin, senior medical officer and co-lead of its Department of Public Health. The county is hosting vaccination sites and trying to reach unaffiliated workers such as home health-care workers through associations, she said.

“It’s going to create challenges,” Rubin said. “We have to have the vaccine and vaccinators. Over the last few days there are promises of increased supply.”

Berger, the Florida pediatrician, said he understood why hospital doctors were given priority, because “they’re dealing with more sick people.” But then Governor Ron DeSantis put seniors 65 and older in the same category as many essential workers, making it harder for those in health care to get protection.

“Most people who are 65 — they have survived this and they can stay at home,” Berger said. “There are people who have positions where they don’t have that option. That’s what was frustrating to me.”

— With assistance by Stacie Sherman

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