Many employees of the college received the vaccine. Courtesy | Hillsdale Hospital

Hillsdale Hos­pital admin­is­tered nearly a thousand COVID-19 vac­ci­na­tions on  Jan. 28 and 29 at the Searle Center, bringing the county one step closer to over­coming the pandemic.

“We have done exactly what the state has asked of us, which is to get shots in arms,” J.J. Hod­shire, pres­ident and CEO of Hillsdale Hos­pital, said in an email.

He cited the college’s low-tem­per­ature freezer, housed in the bio­chem­istry lab and con­nected to backup gen­er­ators, as essential because it allows the vaccine to be stored at tem­per­a­tures as low as ‑80 degrees Celsius.

“In rural healthcare, we are used to oper­ating with fewer resources than our urban and sub­urban coun­ter­parts,” Hod­shire said. “Our part­nership with Hillsdale College for the use of their ultra-low tem­per­ature freezer is a perfect example of how we have to get cre­ative to care for our community.”

Because the hos­pital was able to use the college’s ultra-low tem­per­ature freezer, it received 1,950 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, Hod­shire said. Without the freezer, it would have received only 400 doses of Moderna’s vaccine, which does not require the same refrigeration. 

In clinical trials, Pfizer’s vaccine has been 95% effective against COVID-19 and Moderna’s 94% effective.

“We can’t do it alone and we hope that other rural com­mu­nities in our position will reach out to orga­ni­za­tions in their area that might be able to help them with the chal­lenging logistics of this vac­ci­nation effort,” Hod­shire said. 

Hillsdale Mayor Adam Stockford said the college’s will­ingness to share its freezer with the hos­pital allowed for a greater dis­tri­b­ution of the vaccine. 

“I think it’s great that Hillsdale Hos­pital was able to use the college’s deep freezer for storage,” Stockford said. “Hillsdale is built on insti­tu­tions and small com­mu­nities like ours flourish most when those insti­tu­tions work together.”

Before the two January clinics, the hos­pital admin­is­tered Pfizer vac­cines to tier 1A healthcare workers, including hos­pital staff, home health agencies, and more, according to state guide­lines. Those shots were delivered by Dec. 31.

With the remaining Pfizer vac­cines, the hos­pital admin­is­tered more than 900 doses on Jan. 8 and 9 at the Searle Center. The Pfizer vaccine con­sists of two shots, given three weeks apart. The hos­pital admin­is­tered the second round of approx­i­mately 900 doses on Jan. 28 and 29. 

Rachel Lott, Hillsdale Hos­pital director of mar­keting and devel­opment, said both of the two-day clinics in January took place at the Searle Center due to its large size. 

“We vac­ci­nated more than 900 people over that two-day period and needed space with ample room for social dis­tancing,” Lott said. “We also needed space to move people through in a timely and orderly fashion.” 

Lott said in an email that the hos­pital also pro­vided vac­cines for some long-term care facility workers and res­i­dents, also con­sidered tier 1A, in between the time that it had fin­ished vac­ci­nating healthcare workers in tier 1A and started vac­ci­nating tier 1B. 

“The long-term care workers and res­i­dents were sup­posed to get vac­ci­nated by the pharmacy program, but when we learned that they were still waiting, we stepped in to get them taken care of,” Lott said.

The hospital’s vaccine dis­tri­b­ution out­paced the schedule released by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Ser­vices, so Lott said it fol­lowed the rec­om­men­da­tions from the Center for Disease Control and Pre­vention and admin­is­tered vac­cines to tier 1B workers, which can include “fire fighters, police officers, cor­rec­tions officers, food and agri­cul­tural workers, United States Postal Service workers, man­u­fac­turing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, and those who work in the edu­ca­tional sector (teachers, support staff, and daycare workers),” according to the CDC website. 

Lott said some indi­viduals in tier 1A who opted out of receiving the vaccine when they were eli­gible in December have since received the vaccine, and others con­tinue to register. 

“The state has said the most important thing is that the vac­cines are getting used, and it’s OK to cross tiers to con­tinue vac­ci­na­tions,” Lott said. “It’s OK to move from one tier to the next so long as you provide vac­cines to all of those indi­viduals in the first tier who reg­is­tered to be vac­ci­nated. We fin­ished tier 1A within a week and then moved into tier 1B.” 

Because Hillsdale County com­pleted vac­ci­na­tions for tier 1A indi­viduals ahead of schedule, Lott said, it began to provide shots for people in tier 1B before Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, chief medical exec­utive and chief deputy director for health and human ser­vices, announced on Jan. 8 that Michigan would move into vac­ci­nating indi­viduals in tier 1B. While many vaccine providers con­tinued admin­is­tering the vaccine only to those indi­viduals in tier 1A, Lott said the Hillsdale Hos­pital developed a plan according to the CDC guide­lines for admin­is­tering the vaccine to indi­viduals in tier 1B. 

“The state had not announced when it would be moving tiers, so we looked to the CDC’s rec­om­men­da­tions for tier 1B,” Lott said. “The edu­cation sector, based on the CDC’s rec­om­men­da­tions, includes workers in higher education.” 

In an email to Kaiser Health News, MDHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said the department does “not want providers to waste vaccine and would rather they provide vaccine to someone outside of the pri­or­i­ti­zation groups as opposed to losing doses.”

Although MDHHS does not require approval of vaccine-use plans, Jeff Kauffman, director of pharmacy and pro­fes­sional ser­vices at Hillsdale Hos­pital, notified MDHHS of the hospital’s plan for remaining doses, according to Lott. 

The hos­pital operated with this infor­mation in mind, Lott said, rolling out tier 1B vac­cines based on CDC guide­lines, which included public school teachers, admin­is­trators, and workers who have in-person contact with stu­dents. Some college employees were included in this def­i­n­ition, as they are workers who are in “fre­quent contact with the public or large groups of indi­viduals, including law enforcement officers, critical infra­structure workers, and those in the edu­cation sector,” Lott said in an email. 

“Hillsdale Hos­pital has been an invaluable partner of the school system throughout this COVID pan­demic,” said Shawn Vondra, super­in­tendent of Hillsdale Com­munity Schools. “The most recent impact occurred with the vac­ci­nation clinics pro­vided to K‑12 teachers, school support staff, and childcare workers throughout the county.”

Starting in January, the school dis­trict pro­vided stu­dents with the choice of in-person and virtual learning. 

“The vac­cines pro­vided for these staffing posi­tions are an essential strategy for keeping in-person instruction available for the stu­dents of Hillsdale County,” Vondra said. “We are so very for­tunate to have a health care system ded­i­cating itself to pro­viding high-quality care to our community.”

The hos­pital admin­is­tered vac­cines only to employees of the college who were “actively teaching in the classroom with stu­dents or engaged in other activ­ities that involve fre­quent contact with others in large groups, therefore at higher risk of either being exposed or spreading the virus to a large number of people,” Lott said in an email. This did not include pro­fessors or staff members working remotely.

Last week, the Ohio Department of Health sus­pended a vaccine provider in Columbus after it let 900 doses go to waste. Health offi­cials in Maryland threw out thawed vac­cines when they ran out of time to admin­ister them. 

“When we had remaining vac­cines, we had two choices: leave them in a freezer until the state moved tiers or come up with a plan to use them as quickly as pos­sible,” Hod­shire said. “We opted for the second choice and did so based on guidance from the CDC while remaining in com­mu­ni­cation with MDHHS.”

Despite the college vol­un­teering both storage space for the vaccine and offering its Searle Center con­ference space as a county-wide vac­ci­nation clinic, college employees were vac­ci­nated at a lower rate than the rest of the com­munity, according to the hospital.

“Higher edu­cation, trade and voca­tional faculty/staff were part of a list of essential workers under tier 1B who were vac­ci­nated by Hillsdale Hos­pital,” Hod­shire said. “This was not a dump of vac­cines to spe­cific orga­ni­za­tions based on their status in the com­munity. This was a method­i­cally planned-out process to move through the tiers iden­tified by the CDC. Healthcare and long-term care workers, childcare and K‑12 workers, first responders, and law enforcement make up the vast majority of those we have vaccinated.”

As of Jan. 29, the hos­pital had admin­is­tered 3,502 vac­cines. Tier 1A healthcare workers received 28% of the shots and Tier 1B accounted for 60%. Workers in the edu­cation sector received 36% of all the vac­ci­na­tions, with the majority of them in K‑12 schools. Seniors aged 65 and older made up 30% of indi­viduals vaccinated.

As of Monday morning, the college has 11 pos­itive cases of COVID-19 and eight stu­dents in quar­antine after close contact with an indi­vidual who tested pos­itive. At this time last semester, there were 17 pos­itive cases and 129 stu­dents in contact isolation.

In addition to limited capacity in dining areas, requiring masks in public spaces, encour­aging social dis­tancing, and pro­viding iso­lation housing and amenities, the college has been testing stu­dents who report symptoms. So far this semester, 305 have been tested.

Although the NCAA doesn’t require mandatory testing, Hillsdale College Ath­letic Director Don Brubacher said that student ath­letes are tested regularly.

“Our bas­ketball players are being tested six times a week,” Brubacher said. “When football starts practice, they will also be tested six times a week. High contact sports will be tested six times a week under the current state orders and medium and low contact sports are being tested three times a week.”

Brubacher said he doesn’t know of any student who has received the vaccine, but that the ath­letic department will con­tinue to update its mea­sures to maintain student safety.

“If another measure is iden­tified and we have con­fi­dence that it will be helpful in a certain way, then we’ll use it,” Brubacher said. “We’ll keep up with daily health checks and massive testing. Those seem to be the best defenses we have available.”