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Vaccine distribution again in focus at health board meeting

STEUBENVILLE – As is likely to be the case the for the foreseeable future, the main topic of discussion at Tuesday morning’s meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Health was COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Local activist Royal Mayo raised questions during the public participation segment, concerns about the process were raised in a letter to the board from Maria Hamilton and the vaccine was a topic during the reports from new Health Commissioner Andrew Henry, Nursing Director Hannah Piko, Medical Director Dr. Mark Kissinger and Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Rick Stead.

Toward the end of December, the county received its first doses of the vaccine and entered Phase 1A of the state vaccination plan, administering vaccines to frontline health care workers and first responders willing to get it. It was noted by Piko that the department is still in the process of vaccinating some in that phase.

The county also recently announced an additional 300 doses, which Piko said in her remarks have been received, to enter Phase 1B, with plans to begin to offer the vaccine to qualifying members of the public, starting with those 80 and over who have pre-registered.

Dr. Patrick Macedonia, board member, praised the plan the department executed with the first doses and has in place for the additional doses.

“We got the vaccine on Dec. 22, and at 7 in the morning on Dec.23, (the staff) was out vaccinating,” he said.

“This was part of the distribution plan. We don’t know one day to the next how many we’re getting, or when we’re going. We have learned since that day this plan works.

“(The staff) needs credited for your fast action and good work. Every time there is a clinic, we learn something and get more efficient.”

One of Mayo’s concerns, who gets a leftover dose if a person who signed up does not show up, was addressed in later discussions.

Piko said there is a list for leftover doses so they do not go to waste and that those on it are offered it based on a priority list from the state.

Mayo also raised concerns about the number of cases in the county and asked about plans for future free testing locations, also critiquing the board’s public participation policy.

“What are we going to do moving forward?” he said, noting there was a free testing location in the county recently. “What’s the plan for additional testing?

“The numbers for our area are ridiculous. The number of people getting infected, the number of people dying. I just lost another friend yesterday … I’m concerned, I’m worried. I’d like to see more details, I’d like to see more dialogue between the people on this board and the people of the community.”

Hamilton’s letter, which was submitted to be read in public forum, raised several concerns she had about the board’s transparency among other things and was highly critical of the board.

“(The citizens) rely on transparency from you all to keep Jefferson County safe. One or two taped interviews and written press releases do not provide the depth of information the community needs about a pandemic,” the letter said, as read to the board and the audience by Henry, though he announced he was omitting one part of the letter because it “gets personal” and was “not appropriate” and also announced that due to the five minute public participation limit, not all of the letter would be read.

“Public health in Jefferson County is not being served. You have mismanaged this pandemic since September by not being honest with people.”

One concern raised in the letter was that the older population in the county that is being targeting for this round of vaccine not having the ability to sign up online, which Henry responded that people also can sign up for vaccination by calling the health department.

The letter raised concerns about a lack of information on vaccination distribution and protocols. That information has come from the the state department of health and the governor’s office. Henry reiterated that the department’s plan has been available to the public and is to begin vaccinating those 80 and over this week.

During her report, Piko detailed COVID numbers in the county during the month of December, noting the county saw an increase of 1,810 cases in the month alone. She also stated that of the positive cases, the staff contact tracers monitored 1,360 patients and 292 close contacts during the month.

She said that as of Tuesday the department has vaccinated 472 people.

She also discussed state help with contact tracing that began on Jan. 4 that she said has helped the staff transition to vaccine distribution.

Macedonia pointed to some positive signs in the data, while also addressing the negative.

According to information he cited from the state, at one point recently, Jefferson County was one of the top two counties for cases per 100,000 people. He said the county is now 56th of the 88 counties in the state.

He did note that the county’s ICU zone has the highest percentage of ICU occupancy (46 percent) at nearly double the state average (26.8 percent) . The explanation he offered is the area’s rates of obesity and other comorbidities thought to contribute to serious illness from the virus while also noting the ICU number is also moving down.

During his report, Kissinger noted the best thing county residents can do is try to live healthier lives and also pointed out the numbers are going down locally.

“Our numbers are trickling down in the county, not as fast as we hoped, but they are trickling down,” he said. “As the numbers come down and we get an increase in vaccination, we should be able to start moving toward some sense of normalcy.

“The best thing we can do right now, besides continue vaccination efforts, is encourage people to improve their health. Working on diabetes, hypertension, obesity, all of these things are major risk factors that people carried into this pandemic.”

Henry, who started in his position on Jan. 1, praised the staff at the health department during his report.

“Their commitment to the community is real and genuine, the department has answered the call to serve Jefferson County during this pandemic,” he said. “While I recognize the need for areas of improvement, I’m confident the department will continue to be up to the task.”

In a couple of non-COVID topics, environmental director Marc Maragos updated the board on odor complaints from the APEX Landfill, noting there were 10 in December and none so far in January.

He said there was no update on anything to do with Crossridge Landfill.

Maragos and the board also had a phone conference with a woman associated with a property in the county that has nuisance complaints.

The woman noted that she lives out of the area with her mother, the property’s owner, and her brothers reside at the property. She and her mother, who she said is in poor health, say they were unaware of the state of the property but she told the board she would work to resolve the issues – ranging from junk cars, garbage and septic issues.

The board gave the woman until April 30 to have all issues addressed and required her to provide Maragos with weekly progress reports.

It was noted by board President Terry Bell that Henry is the person the public must contact to get on the agenda, per the Ohio Revised Code.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first for Henry and new board member Anthony Mougianis in their respective roles.

The board is set to meet again on Feb. 16.

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