OMAHA — States and cities across the country have struggled to efficiently vaccinate their vulnerable populations against COVID-19, but the Omaha-based VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System has gotten more shots into veterans’ arms than almost any of its peers.
As of Thursday, the Omaha VA had delivered a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine to 16,116 veterans in its service area. That ranked the Omaha VA health system fourth out of 141 Department of Veterans Affairs health systems nationwide, behind three in Florida, according to the VA’s website.
The VA health system has given the full two-dose COVID-19 regimen to 4,607 area veterans, the sixth-most in the country.
Leaders at the Omaha VA credit an effort that started last March with the creation of a COVID-19 task force to set policy across the health system, which encompasses most of Nebraska, a portion of western Iowa and a handful of counties in northern Kansas and northwest Missouri.
That task force in turn set up a “vaccine working group” in October, when it became clear one or more COVID-19 vaccines would soon be approved for use.
“It’s history in the making,” said Tracie Balvanz, the Omaha VA’s chief of pharmacy and the leader of its vaccine group. “There’s really no playbook for this.”
VA leaders held two practice exercises to figure out where problems might arise. They used the health system’s annual employee flu shot campaign as a dry run, testing the setup that would soon be used to get vaccine to veterans.
“We figured out how many we could get in in an eight-hour period,” said Jim Jenkins, the system’s emergency manager and a member of the vaccine group.
The first doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived at the VA Medical Center on Dec. 15, in part because the hospital had the deep freeze necessary to store it.
“We started doing employee vaccinations that very day,” said Omaha VA spokesman Kevin Hynes.
In early January, the VA began giving vaccinations six days a week (including holidays) at its new ambulatory care clinic in Omaha and five days a week at medical centers in Lincoln and Grand Island.
Smaller outpatient clinics in Holdrege and North Platte have given COVID-19 vaccines one day a week.
The VA has also been working with the Nebraska National Guard to begin offering clinics at Guard facilities around the state.
Hynes, who is also a Guard officer, said they make good sites because of their large, open spaces. And it has allowed the VA to get out to more rural areas.
“Having it in these communities allows veterans not to have to drive to Omaha, Lincoln or Grand Island,” Jenkins said.
In the civilian world, most people who want a vaccination must sign up for shots using online systems that in many cases are confusing or overtaxed.
But the Omaha VA has mustered staff and volunteers to contact veterans by phone or text and help them sign up. Balvanz said this duty has been popular.
“It’s been a huge team effort, wherever we need it,” she said. “It’s been kind of a positive after the toll of COVID.”
Currently, the vaccine clinics are open to veterans 65 and over, and those who have underlying health conditions. Hynes said the VA hopes to offer a vaccine to all veterans who want one by May or June.
Eligible veterans who haven’t been contacted yet can reach out to their VA primary care provider to express interest in receiving a vaccine, Hynes said. More information is available at: va.gov/health-care/covid-19-vaccine/stay-informed.
While the Omaha VA is among the top five in vaccinating veterans, none has topped the VA system in Orlando, Florida.
As of Thursday, the Orlando VA has given a shot to 21,692 veterans — 4,225 more than the Tampa, Florida, system.
The Orlando VA has also given the full two-dose regimen to more veterans than any other: 11,666. The San Antonio VA is second with 9,333.