In Willie Nelson’s hit song ‘Me and Paul’ the lyrics begin “It’s been rough and rocky travelin’ But I’m finally standin’ upright on the ground.” He was singing about all the trouble he and his dear friend the late Paul English had in traveling around the country playing shows with the likes of Kitty Wells and Charlie Pride. That song popped into my head recently as we have witnessed a rough and rocky rollout of COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Hopefully, as Willie wrote, a functioning vaccine program will soon be standin’ upright on the ground. Despite the incredible turnaround on developing and manufacturing millions of vaccines, it’s been a slow process getting it from the production line to patients’ arms. People that qualify for vaccines have signed up, only to have their much-anticipated appointment canceled due to an unanticipated vaccine shortage at the last minute. A husband and wife both in their mid-nineties recently came up to me at a Village Inn very upset that they had read where Missouri was 50th in getting the vaccine delivered to people like them. These folks were understandably desperate to get vaccinated. While I told them the study they referenced was far from accurate, I had been doing a lot to get to the bottom of the problem and would know more in a few days. You see, I was preparing to take a deep dive for answers on why the vaccine rollout wasn’t rolling. As part of this effort, I was also going to be getting an earful from Doctors and Nurses that have been on the front line battling COVID-19 daily for a year now. I carved three days out of my schedule to do nothing but sit down with these dedicated heroes right here in the 7th Congressional District of Missouri in person to hear their stories firsthand. In the end, it was a very therapeutic endeavor for both them and me.
One hospital that has more than one location in the District said that I could visit one of their sites and one of their other hospitals would join the meeting through Zoom. I quickly informed them that wouldn’t be happening. I said if I wanted to Zoom, I could do that from Washington. I explained it was important to me to meet with their people in person and look them in the eye instead of looking at a computer monitor. They relented, and I visited two of their area hospitals in person. In all, I visited six hospitals, two clinics, and one active vaccination site over the three days from Bolivar to Joplin to Branson. My first stop took me to Mercy Hospital in Springfield and if I’ve ever had a more moving meeting during my time in Congress, I don’t remember it. Mercy’s frontline Doctors and Nurses poured their hearts and in some cases their life stories out to me. At each of the stops, I held roundtable discussions with healthcare workers where they could share their stories, air their grievances, speak freely of their struggles, and let me know what they needed from folks like me in Washington. The stories came and the tears flowed. They were emotional and powerful, and I came away with nothing but total respect and a heightened appreciation for these true frontline heroes. I heard stories from doctors and nurses who have had to deal with far more loss of life than they ever dreamed they would when they signed up for medical or nursing school. They fight as hard as they can and have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in what is still an uphill battle to save their patients inflicted with COVID-19.
The emotional toll extracted from these frontline workers is indescribable. Many spoke to me about having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They talked of administering shots or treatments to patients and making hospital rounds as they are sleeping in their beds at home. Of being forced to slip away from their spouses and children at home to find a quiet spot to make calls to bereaved love ones to notify them that their beloved family member was gone as this wretched virus had claimed another victim. And still, they go to work to do it all over again the next day. There was a severe shortage of nurses in this country long before anyone had uttered the word Coronavirus. Think if you can what that shortage must look like today. Going forward, it’s clear we’ve got to provide healthcare institutions the resources they need to address the mental health issues their frontline workers are facing. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge for everyone, and our frontline healthcare workers have heeded the call to step up for their communities and do battle with a pandemic that has been ravaging the world. They are taking care of us and our communities, and we need to make sure that we are taking care of them.
A common thread from all of my visits is that these medical facilities and their dedicated staffs are trained, ready, willing, and able to put shots in arms. They have the plans in place, and it’s past time we ensure they have a consistent supply of vaccines to administer. Some hospitals told me they were promised a certain amount of vaccines for a certain day, only to end up receiving a different amount on a different day. This forces hospitals to change their schedule and leaves patients wondering when they will actually get their vaccine. Another issue is they have administered the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine which requires two doses 21 days apart or the Moderna vaccine which requires two doses 28 days apart and then are politely told “we’re switching you from Moderna to Pfizer or vice-versa.” So, what are they supposed to do to get these folks their second dose? Many of the issues we discussed could be addressed in three words predictability, communication, and supply. These hospitals need a predictable delivery of vaccines, clear communication from the state and federal governments on when which vaccine, and how much is being delivered, and the need a steady supply. Our frontline heroes are ready.
The COVID-19 relief legislation that passed in December with my total support contained billions of dollars for vaccine distribution, yet only half has been distributed to states so far. It’s time to get those funds to the states. I commend President Biden for promising to give providers three weeks’ notice for their vaccine allotments in lieu of the current three days’ notice that is inaccurate anyway. This will provide for greater predictability for states and reduce the unknowns as they distribute vaccines.
As I’ve mentioned before President Biden’s relief plan can be a good starting point for a great bipartisan package. A bipartisan relief package will ensure that the needs of everyone are addressed. It is my hope that President Biden and Congressional Democrats will begin including Republicans in their talks so that my colleagues and I can incorporate the ideas and feedback we are getting from healthcare workers in our districts and ensure our frontline healthcare workers have everything they need to win the fight against COVID-19.
For those of you not familiar with who Willie Nelson is, he was a dishwasher at ‘Aunt Martha’s Pancake House’ just east of Glenstone Ave. on Cherokee in Springfield. He would wash dishes on the weekdays and try out hoping to get a spot on the nationally televised ‘Ozark Jubilee’ on the weekends. After months of being rejected and told that he had no musical talent he finally gave up and left town. And if memory serves, I believe ‘Me and Paul’ may have been his only hit record. I’ll save my story about how local house painter Billy B. and his wife came to act in Wille’s movie Redheaded Stranger at Willie’s invitation for a later ‘Long’s Short Report.’
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