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Deploying a vaccine strike force

An Illinois service partnered with the health department to vaccinate vulnerable populations in homeless shelters, nursing homes, jails and congregate living facilities

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“If Peoria County were a state, it would be number two in the nation for total number of doses administered per 100,000 residents. That’s very impressive,” said Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker in a late February press conference.

Photo/Getty Images

The most “average” American city was anything but when it came to COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

In fact, Peoria, Illinois, known as a meat-and-potatoes middle-America test market, has made ambitious moves toward stamping out the deadly virus in its area. With a metropolitan area of under 400,000, the Peoria area is often overshadowed by Chicago, three hours to the northeast. But in COVID-19 response, Peoria has been a clear standout.

“If Peoria County were a state, it would be number two in the nation for total number of doses administered per 100,000 residents. That’s very impressive,” said Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker in a late February press conference.

By mid-March, Peoria had vaccinated nearly 90% of its over-65 population and 55% of the eligible population under 65 has received a first dose of vaccine. These numbers are about two and a half times the state average. Also targeted in the Peoria area were the most vulnerable populations – the homeless, the incarcerated, persons with disabilities and others in congregate living.

Just a stone’s throw from the USDA Agriculture Lab that first developed mass-produced penicillin, stands Advanced Medical Transport (AMT, as it’s known locally). While the lab changed the course of modern medicine, the private not-for-profit ambulance provider’s forward view has earned national recognition in the areas of safety, technology, cardiac arrest resuscitation, and, most recently, its response to the pandemic.

AMT had teamed up with the Peoria City and County Health Department in the spring of 2020 to roll out and staff mass testing facilities throughout the community. Included was one drive-through site on AMT’s campus that offered free 15-minute rapid testing to all police, fire and EMS personnel in a tri-county area. On a busy day, this site handled up to 100 tests for frontline responders who may not have had access to testing otherwise.

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Todd Baker of Advanced Medical Transport and epidemiologist Kate Endress of the Peoria City and County Health Department prepare Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses for administration. (Photo/Josh Bradshaw)

Photo/Josh Bradshaw

“When rapid antigen testing became available, we again partnered with the health department to open a rapid testing center for first responders throughout central Illinois, a three-county region. We also began providing testing services through our Rapid Ambulatory Specialty Program to high-risk ambulatory patients throughout the Peoria area as well as all homeless shelters in Peoria County,” said Kelly Walsh, AMT’s director of innovation.

By late fall, talks shifted to vaccine delivery and how to help the most vulnerable residents in the most efficient manner. It seemed like a massive undertaking, but Peoria’s big small town dynamic helped various agencies and jurisdictions to mesh.

“We had all of the pieces in place – trained staff, vehicles, distribution channels and, most importantly, partnerships,” Vice President of Business Development Todd Baker said, “Open channels of communication with public health and hospital officials are key in an effort like this.”

Public health officials agreed that the EMS model was perfectly suited to take the vaccine doses on the road. AMT was the first in its region to pilot mobile integrated healthcare in 2015. Such innovations in service delivery paved the way for AMT to mobilize its Vaccine Strike Team. This team of a few dozen people can spread out to sites and deliver doses to hundreds, sometimes thousands, of residents per week. Team members come from every facet of AMT’s operations – from the CEO, to family members of care providers volunteering their weekends.

“Like many EMS agencies across the country, staffing has been challenging over the past few months. Our administrative team was fully on board and quite frequently came out to assist in everything from completing paperwork to drawing up doses. We also hired in non-traditional staff, well non-traditional for an EMS agency – RNs without EMS certification or experience, LPNs, CMAs and even nursing students,” said Walsh. “On days when we had 200 vaccines to administer in one location, with some residents not being able to come to the community rooms, we were able to create additional jump kits and send out smaller teams to individual apartments or locations. It truly takes a team to get a job of this scale done. And this is just the beginning.”

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Advanced Medical Transport Director of Innovation Kelly Walsh gives a vaccine shot to Terryl Brawner, a community servant and volunteer, as well as a local business owner.

Photo/Josh Bradshaw

Baker says that the early challenges were related to securing supply of vaccines. But looking forward, as supply catches up, he sees community outreach as both a future challenge and a future opportunity. “We are working with community leaders, such as church pastors, to make sure that minority populations and residents in our legacy neighborhoods have access to reliable information and every opportunity to become vaccinated.”

Walsh further noted that some residents may lack internet access to get information or may have transportation issues. Future Strike Team operations may include neighborhood pop-up vaccination sites.

“Our next few months will be very busy,” Walsh said. “With the support of the Peoria City County Health Department and the great team here at AMT, I have no doubt that we will get the job done.”


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Josh Bradshaw is community resource manager, Advanced Medical Transport in Peoria, Illinois.