State unveils fix for vaccine reporting snags, with some counties set to get fewer doses

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Gov. Laura Kelly announced Thursday it is rolling out potential solutions to correct the underreporting of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in Kansas.

Gov. Laura Kelly and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment are rushing to implement changes unveiled Thursday that will aim to correct the underreporting of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in Kansas.

The gaps between state and federal data have been blamed on problems transferring data from the state's vaccine reporting system, WebIZ, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There also have been issues in providers entering their doses into WebIZ, officials say.

Nagging technical problems have been reported since the state began vaccine distribution in December, but Marci Nielsen, the state's chief advisor for COVID-19 coordination, said it was initially believed the problems could have been addressed by now.

But further investigation found the glitches were more serious and required more extensive work. 

"As you unpeel the layers of the onion that there were a handful of different issues that were impacting different (vaccine) providers in different ways," Nielsen said.

KDHE Secretary Lee Norman said last week that upwards of 100,000 doses had been administered but not recorded. He acknowledged that the reporting problems have been worse in Kansas than in other states. 

As of Friday, the CDC pegs Kansas as 45th for the percentage of doses administered, with 417,825 of the 581,975 shots distributed to the state being put in arms. KDHE data, meanwhile, says over 456,000 doses have been administered.

One prong of the proposed solution is a requirement that all vaccine providers give daily updates on the number of doses administered, received, inventoried and transferred to other entities. Those reports are due to begin Monday.

Dennis Kriesel, director of the Kansas Association of Local Health Departments, said this would be a record that could be passed along to the federal government while also giving the state a better idea of how many vaccine doses have been given out and where. 

"KDHE has even asked for screenshots of what people see when they look at their WebIZ records," he said. "Because I've heard there are instances where what the local (health department) sees and what the state sees aren't the same number."

The state will also have certain providers report their data again in a new file format in an effort to get accurate data into the hands of the federal government.

This could be a substantial time investment for larger entities, particularly hospitals, who have significant amounts of data to re-enter.

But Cindy Samuelson, a spokesperson for the Kansas Hospital Association, said KDHE had offered to provide support so that vaccine distribution isn't sidelined in the meantime.

"The priority is always going to be getting shots in arms and then getting the data in," Samuelson said.

Facilities that would have to re-enter the data hadn't all been notified yet as of Friday, she said, and it is unclear how many hospitals and health departments would be affected.

"This is work, this is a lot of work and (KDHE) have not been able to share how long this process will last," Samuelson said.

There were concerns that the state's vaccine allotment could be slashed if it appeared shots were not getting in arms fast enough.

"To the CDC it looks like we're just not using enough (vaccine)," Kriesel said.

Nielsen acknowledged that the Trump administration had issued such threats but noted that hasn't come to pass under President Joe Biden's team. It still remained a possibility if the issue wasn't addressed, she acknowledged.

"We want to ensure that the pipeline of vaccine from the federal government, to Kansas, that nothing jeopardizes that and we get our maximum allotment," she said. "We are under no threat at this time but we want to fix it before it becomes an issue."

Meanwhile, over two dozen counties won't receive first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine next week as the state attempts to even out distribution across rural and urban areas.

Counties that have been receiving over 25 doses per 100 residents wouldn't get their doses next week, Nielsen confirmed, although second-dose shipments to those areas wouldn't be affected.

Larger counties have received far fewer doses per capita in recent weeks.

Shawnee County, for instance, receives three times fewer doses per 100 residents than Jewell County, one of the areas seeing its distribution paused next week. That is despite the fact that Shawnee County has 59 times more people than Jewell County, located in north-central Kansas.

Nielsen said the gap between counties had been amplified because in recent weeks the state hadn't received the expected allotment of the Pfizer vaccine, which only goes to larger counties because of storage requirements.

And sometimes smaller counties can inadvertently get more than initially expected due to how the Moderna vaccine is shipped, she noted.

The pause in distribution to those smaller counties was intended to fix that.

"We want to level the playing field," Nielsen said.

The slower flow of vaccines has created problems for larger counties that are aiming to vaccinate high-risk individuals. Sedgwick County, for instance, has limited vaccinations for seniors to those 70 years and older, rather than age 65, due to short supply.

Meanwhile, in Lincoln County, Ladonna Reinert, the county's health department administrator, said the county of 3,000 residents was "almost to the bottom" of the list of seniors 65 and older in the area.

She said over 400 residents in Phase 2 of the state's vaccination plan have already been immunized, with a "couple hundred" remaining.

"It is concerning," Reinert said of the decision to pause their vaccine shipments. "However, people from surrounding counties keep calling us and calling us and calling us. So if our surrounding counties that are bigger get my 100 doses, I would rather that than have them have to come here."

Part of the stated rationale, Reinert said, was also to help vaccinate teachers. Many school districts across the state have only just started vaccinating their staff, but in Lincoln County, all teachers received their first dose last week.

"I can understand it because we are a very small county," she said.

The policy would remain in effect going forward, with the smaller counties getting vaccine shipments every other week for the foreseeable future. 

Other tweaks were also being made to boost the vaccine allotment for larger counties, including the decision to more heavily weigh a county's social determinants of health in deciding where doses go.

It is also expected that the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program will help urban areas, with Dillons and Walmart stores in some areas starting to give out the vaccine last week.

Not all smaller counties are created equal, however. Some will continue to receive a full weekly allotment and say it is much needed.

In Ottawa County, health department administrator Sara Hodges said that appointments for the county's 100 doses fill up within half an hour each Monday, when residents are able to call and sign up.

"It would have been awful here" if doses were cut, she said.

With over 10% of Kansans now vaccinated, immunization has helped dent the number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the state. KDHE reported a rise of 2,115 cases between Wednesday and Friday, as well as an increase of 93 deaths.

But this was no reason for residents to stop taking preventative measures, said Derik Flerlage, infectious disease division manager for the Shawnee County Health Department.

“It’s important for everybody to still take caution,” he said Thursday. “It goes to those that have been vaccinated as well. Quite simply, we don’t know what that long-term immunity looks like.”

Capital-Journal staff writer Blaise Mesa contributed to this report.