National Guard coming to McHenry County Wednesday to boost vaccination effort

Two teams of Illinois National Guard members will be deployed to McHenry County - a mobile unit arriving Wednesday will be used, in part, to vaccinate local manufacturing employees, and a stationary unit arriving at the end of the month will staff clinics supervised by the county health department.

In providing this support, the state requires the health department run vaccine clinics six days a week including weekends, meaning clinics will be offered Tuesday through Sunday for the duration of the National Guard's six-to-eight-week stay, Public Health Nursing Director Susan Karras said in an interview Tuesday.

"We're super excited about this opportunity and that they're willing to come here and help us," Karras said. "I think it is going to help us tremendously as far as escalating our plan."

The National Guard originally offered to bring its own vaccine doses with them to supplement the county's supply, as was reported by the Northwest Herald last week, but this offer was contingent upon the establishment of a new vaccination site that would have been open to residents from across the state, Karras said.

"We wanted to focus on our residents at this time and to provide it only to our residents or people that work in McHenry County," Karras said. "So now it's our vaccine only and they're providing the guard as supplemental help to our plan."

The hope is the county still will see an increase in doses flowing from the state since it is required to hold clinics six days a week, Karras said. It all depends, however, on how many doses the state receives from the federal government as limited supply remains the biggest hindrance at every level of the distribution chain.

"The presence of the Illinois National Guard does not guarantee our COVID-19 allotments will increase, but with the extra manpower, with each team consisting of six vaccinators and 12 support staff, we can expect to increase our vaccination capacity and move through the Phase 1b priority group quicker," county Public Health Administrator Melissa Adamson said in a news release Tuesday.

The two teams, composed of 18 members each, will serve two very different functions in supporting the county's vaccine distribution effort, she said.

The mobile team will be deployed throughout the community to target "vulnerable, underserved and at-risk populations and businesses," according to the release.

Their first target will be the employees of large manufacturing companies who "struggle to keep that 6-foot distancing because of the layout of their business and what their functions are," Karras said in a McHenry County Board of Health meeting Monday.

Factory workers fall under "front-line essential workers" in the state's Phase 1b prioritization, and the county will be focusing first and foremost on companies that have had "at least one" outbreak over the past year, Karras said Tuesday.

"Most of these businesses, too, do have a large Hispanic population working and we do know, disproportionately, that they are being affected more than other ethnic groups in our community, so that's another reason why we are targeting some of those companies," she said.

The McHenry County health department has already been in contact with companies to formulate a plan and get clinics scheduled with the help of the National Guard, she said.

"We're still working on a plan for the homebound residents. That's a little bit trickier as far as locating them and just with the logistics of the vaccine, the (post-vaccination) monitoring," Karras said at Monday's board of health meeting. "That is still ongoing. We're reaching out to some agencies and trying to get some help with that."

Karras said she and her staff reached out to 30 local agencies who serve homebound seniors to put together a plan to vaccinate them but have received responses from only seven. They are looking to partner with organizations, such as Meals on Wheels, to map out the county's seniors who are medically homebound, she said.

"Once we can get our hands on that information and try to plot out where they are, we can find those clusters and send a strike team," she said Monday.

The stationary or "fixed" team will take over staffing of the McHenry County health department's largest clinic in the old Kmart building in McHenry, according to the release.

The National Guard also will help with a few drive-through clinics the county hopes to get up and running next month as soon as weather allows, Karras said Tuesday

Thus far, they have established three drive-through clinic locations: the McHenry County Fairgrounds in Woodstock, the Huntley School District 158 bus barn on their Square Barn Campus in Algonquin and the garage for the village of Algonquin's public works department, she said.

Outdoor, drive-through clinics "are better for social distancing and it's more convenient for certain populations," Karras said.

The mobile team will come to the county Wednesday to help rearrange the McHenry vaccination site, so residents no longer will have to wait outside before their appointments, Karras said. Some of those team members will help out at the site this week and next until the stationary team takes their place and others will be pushed out into the community, she said.

The McHenry County health department will need to provide a site supervisor for both National Guard teams, as well as a registered nurse to oversee storage and handling of the vaccine, Karras said. The county also will need to provide some nurses, but the teams will be supported by vaccinators contracted by the state.

All in all, Karras said Monday, the help of the National Guard will bring relief to members of her team in the Public Health Nursing Division - the department at the head of the county's vaccination effort - after they logged more than 1,400 hours of unpaid overtime in January alone.

National Guard members will focus on inoculating seniors and front-line essential workers over the next few weeks and once those groups reach herd immunity levels of at least 80% vaccinated, the county plans to open up appointments to adults with preexisting medical conditions, Karras said Tuesday.

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