NEW PORT RICHEY — Last month, Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey was in the right place at the right time. She was given the rare chance of getting a COVID-19 vaccination when doses went unused after a community vaccination clinic.
County administrator Dan Biles approached Starkey after a meeting and told her the vaccines were on their way to emergency management and would soon expire.
The county had already reached out to approximately 200 county employees 65 and over who had expressed interest in getting vaccinated if doses became available. But when that didn’t provide enough people nearby to use up the available doses, Starkey agreed to reach out to several constituents, who were around 90 and who wanted to get the vaccine.
But none of Starkey’s contacts could get to the location quickly enough. It was then that she decided to take the vaccine herself, even though she isn’t yet 65. She also brought in her husband Trey, also not yet 65, and a friend who were both nearby.
Some might argue Starkey jumped the line ahead of thousands of anxious Pasco residents — eligible for a vaccine under the current criteria but not yet able to snag an appointment. But her situation illustrates a precarious aspect of the vaccination process: Vaccine appointments aren’t always kept, and sometimes there are extra doses left over at the end of the day, with only hours before they go to waste.
In January, Oregon healthcare workers were stuck in a snowstorm after a vaccination event, with six doses of the vaccine unused and soon to expire. They went car to car in the traffic jam to be sure the vaccinations were used rather than letting them spoil. The nationally-publicized incident was a dramatic demonstration of how those who administer the vaccine are sometimes challenged to make sure no doses are wasted.
Pasco County’s emergency management director, Andrew Fossa, said this is one of many challenges since the vaccine first rolled out. While vaccine administrators are getting better at the process, there can still be an issue with making sure vaccines don’t go bad before they can be administered.
An open vial remains usable for five days. But Fossa said once the vaccine is drawn up into a syringe, it must be used within five hours.
As the county has been distributing shots, there have been several instances when vaccines were left over, including a recent case when 467 people had appointments but only about 300 showed up. Fossa said the next step was to reach out to the Health Department to see if they needed vaccines at either of their distribution sites at Saint Leo University or the Gulfview Square Mall.
Then, Fossa said he went to the list of county employees, starting first with those age eligible whose jobs give them direct contact with the public: first responders, bus drivers and those in customer service. As the time ticked down, Fossa said, “that’s when the red flag goes off and we know that we have to get those shots in arms” and he works to do that.
Fossa said those who make an appointment for a shot need to keep that appointment, because a dose of the vaccine is reserved for them at that point.
Starkey said she believes the county is doing a good job with its vaccination program and hopes that distribution would grow as more doses are made available. But she also wants people to know she didn’t try to throw her weight around to get the vaccine before others who want to be vaccinated.
“I never asked anyone if I could get a shot,” she said.