Deputy Health Commissioner Janis Valmond was nearly giddy in anticipation Tuesday afternoon. A FedEx package containing new Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines had arrived on St. Croix and Valmond was awaiting word whether they were the federally provided shots meant for uninsured people or the privately acquired jabs meant for everyone else.
The federally funded COVID vaccines program ended in mid-September, with only a Bridge Access Program for those without proper health insurance left for free.
Many Virgin Islands pharmacies and private doctors declined to purchase and distribute the expensive inoculation. Those who chose to carry the vaccine found it more difficult than anticipated, with thin lines of distribution hindered further by a cyber attack on the primary drug provider from the mainland.
“We have the Bridge COVID-19 vaccine in both clinics, which is for the uninsured and the underinsured. For the insured population, the rest of us, we had to place a preorder. We’ve been waiting with bated breath for those to arrive,” Valmond said. “They’re literally picking up the vaccines. If it is the COVID-19 vaccines for the insured, we will be so happy to put the word out that we have them and we are ready to administer. But as of this moment at 2:43, I still need to confirm.”
She’d wind up disappointed. The FedEx package did not contain the doses meant for insured people.
“Nobody’s waiting as much for this,” Valmond said. “I haven’t gotten my own yet!”
Two shipments sent to Plessen Healthcare Specialty Clinic late last month sold out within a week, an employee said. The Christiansted clinic has been turning away COVID vaccine seekers ever since. St. Thomas’ Wilson Healthcare Consultants has a waitlist of more than 80 people wanting the vaccine, an employee said. They didn’t know when the new shipment might arrive.
By contrast, the influenza vaccine is widely available in the territory and completely free to everyone, Valmond said. Clinics, doctors, and the Health Department have influenza vaccines available on St. Croix and St. Thomas. On Nov. 28, Community Health Services will offer influenza vaccines at the Morris deCastro Clinic on St. John from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., as well as the COVID vaccine for the uninsured and underinsured.
While doctors normally advise people to get their annual flu shot, it may be more important this year than usual. Puerto Rico, like most of the southeastern United States, was in the midst of a profound flu outbreak, according to health records released Nov. 17. Close to 35,000 cases had been documented, according to island epidemiologists, with likely far more going unreported. Puerto Rico’s numbers were comparable to Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. Only Louisiana had a higher percentage of infections reported. Information on Virgin Islands flu reports was not immediately available but given the holiday season, an outbreak could be close at hand.
Other vaccines were also available across the territory, such as the RSV and shingles inoculations. Unlike other vaccines, however, these two need to be prescribed by a doctor before they can be administered, a St. Croix pharmacist said.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak in Spring 2020, the Virgin Islands had administered more than 521,000 COVID tests. The territory lost 133 people to the illness. As of Monday, the Health Department reported five active cases.