Michele Bever (copy)

Michele Bever, executive director of the South Heartland District Health Department, speaks during a news conference Feb. 27 about area novel coronavirus planning and prevention. Bever announced April 18 that a woman in her 80s was the first death related to COVID-19 in Adams County.

The South Heartland District Health Department is ready to begin offering vaccinations against the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, to the general population of senior citizens once vaccine is in hand.

Senior citizens age 65 and older, as well as other adults with high-risk medical conditions, are prioritized for vaccination under Phase 1B of the state of Nebraska’s vaccination plan.

Up to now, South Heartland has been working to vaccinate frontline health care workers who were part of Phase 1A.

That phase also included long-term care residents and employees, who were vaccinated under a separate government program in coordination with private-sector pharmacies.

Now, the health department — which serves Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties — is ready for Phase 1B.

Because vaccine supplies remain meager, South Heartland will begin by vaccinating seniors age 90 and older, then gradually work its way down by age, said Michele Bever, health department executive director.

Bever said the agency intends to work with health care providers across the district to get residents vaccinated.

“Within South Heartland’s four counties, we hope to have a total of 14 provider facilities approved by the DHHS Immunization Program to help administer COVID-19 vaccine to individuals age 65 and up and adults with high-risk medical conditions,” she said in a Monday night news release, referring to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

She recommended that district residents who want the vaccine register on the health department’s website, www.southheartlandhealth.org.

“Registering to get the vaccine is easy,” Bever said, “Just follow four steps.”

The steps are:

1. Visit the website.

2. Click on the red banner at the top of the page where it says “Click Here for more information on registering your interest in getting the COVID-19 vaccine.” Viewers then will be taken to the department’s vaccine information page where up-to-date details are available.

3. Click on the picture of the vaccine to start the registration survey.

4. Complete the registration questions, then click on the arrow to submit. You will be directed back to the vaccine information page where you can find more links and resources about the vaccine.

Bever said individuals who register on the health department’s sign-up list will be notified when they are eligible to schedule an appointment at their health care provider’s office or a vaccine clinic.

Individuals on the list will be added automatically to the state vaccination registration system (called VRAS) once it is launched later this month. When that happens, registered individuals will be notified through VRAS when they are eligible to schedule an appointment, and the South Heartland registration system will be phased out.

Bever cautioned that unless allotments of vaccinate increase, South Heartland will be working for a long time to get senior citizens their doses.

“The rate we are able to move through these priority age groups depends on how much vaccine we receive each week and how many in each priority group want the vaccine,” she said. “This week we are expecting 600 doses of vaccine. The census tells us there are about 8,000 residents in our district age 65+, which means if everyone ages 65 and over wants the vaccine, it will take 13 weeks to receive enough vaccine for this priority group alone.”

As the waiting continues, Bever encourages all district residents to continue taking precautions to help thwart further local spread of the virus. These precautions include avoiding crowds, close contact with non-household members and confined, poorly ventilated spaces.

“We will need to use ALL the tools we have, including the vaccine, to help stop the pandemic,” she said.

That said, at least some district statistics related to COVID-19 over the last few days could be called encouraging.

Fifty-one new confirmed cases of the disease were recorded in the district Friday through Monday. That tally included 24 in Adams County, 10 each in Clay and Nuckolls counties, and seven in Webster County.

The district’s test positivity rate for the week of Jan. 17-23 dropped to 8.9% from 10.3% for the previous week.

The test positivity rate is the percentage of COVID-19 tests administered in a given week that come back from the laboratory with a positive result.

Positivity rates exceeding 15% correlate to widespread community transmission of the virus. Rates below 5% correlate to low spread.

By county, positivity rates were 10.2% in Adams, 5.9% in Clay, 10.3% in Nuckolls, and 6.1% in Webster.

“This continues to be a trend in the right direction,” Bever said.

In the neighboring Two Rivers Public Health District, Kearney County recorded six new cases of COVID-19 for Thursday through Sunday. Harlan County had three new cases, and Franklin County had zero.