MOUNT VERNON – In the five months since it opened, Energy Fieldhouse has hosted track meets, wrestling duals and weight-lifting sessions. It served as a socially distant voting precinct in the November election, and its doors remain open daily to community members looking for a warm place to walk or jog during the winter months.
Soon, the $8 million facility will play another vital community role: hosting COVID-19 vaccination clinics.
The Mount Vernon Board of Education approved a memorandum of understanding with Knox Public Health at its Monday meeting to grant the health department free use of Energy Fieldhouse for that purpose.
"Thanks to this community for their generous contributions and donations, we’re finding that Energy Fieldhouse is carrying on a lot of neat roles ..." Mount Vernon Superintendent Bill Seder said. "It’s exciting to see Energy Fieldhouse being used in such a community way.”
Energy Fieldhouse will serve as one of Knox County's main vaccine distribution centers during the coming months, according to Knox County Health Commissioner Julie Miller. The other will be Cooper Progress Park (the former Siemens Energy campus), which was made available recently through a similar agreement between Knox Public Health and the Knox County Land Bank.
Knox Public Health plans to utilize Energy Fieldhouse as a walk-in vaccine center, Miller said. The facility's spacious gym/track area will allow large numbers of people to be vaccinated at once, while also maintaining social distancing (those with limited mobility will still be able to receive curbside service).
Cooper Progress Park, meanwhile, will be utilized as a drive-thru location. KPH will operate out of Test Bay 4.
While Miller said Knox Public Health may utilize other locations across the county for vaccine distribution, such as police departments or high schools in the county's villages, Energy Fieldhouse and Cooper Progress Park will likely serve as the main distribution hubs.
Not only are these facilities large and centrally located, but they're also able to hold patients for 15 minutes after their shot – a rare commodity required for COVID-19 vaccine distribution, given the need to monitor for allergic reactions immediately after deployment.
Patients will be able to wait in their cars at Cooper Progress Park, utilizing a connected parking area, and they'll be able to sit in socially distanced chairs at Energy Fieldhouse during this time. The Knox County Fairgrounds, for example, does not have this kind of waiting space.
"It’s really nice for this kind of event ..." Miller said of the field house. "If we could get enough vaccine (doses) to vaccinate half our population, just think – we could probably, five days a week, have a clinic and get it all done in this kind of facility."
THE NEXT STEP: According to Miller, Knox Public Health has the facilities and staffing to vaccinate large portions of the local population. Now, it simply needs more of the vaccine.
The health department has used all 400 of its Moderna doses on "Phase 1A" recipients over the last four weeks. These doses have gone to frontline health care workers, EMS responders, residents and staff in congregate-care settings, and others who meet the criteria.
In total, 1,472 county residents have received the vaccine to-date, according to the Ohio Department of Health. This represents 2.3 percent of Knox County's population (which is comparable to the 2.9 percent state rate).
Starting next week, the vaccine will become available to Ohioans age 80 and older who live outside of a long-term care facility. The week of Jan. 25, vaccinations will open up to those age 75 and older; the week of Feb. 1, vaccinations will be available for those age 70 and older; and the week of Feb. 8, vaccinations will open up for those age 65 and older.
There are more than 10,000 Knox County residents in these age categories, according to KPH spokeswoman Pam Palm.
Miller said the health department is expecting to receive 300 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from the state on Monday, which it will store in ultra-cold freezers provided through partnerships with Knox Community Hospital and Kenyon College. KPH plans to announce Thursday how it will administer these doses next week.
"We have enough people who called in early on – I mean, even before the vaccine was out – to say, ‘When the vaccine’s ready, we want one,'" Miller said.
"So we’re going through that list, (seeing) who’s 80 and up, and they’ve been contacted or will be contacted. We’ll probably use those 300 doses for that 80-year-and-up population, or as many of them as we can."
Knox Public Health, like every local health department in Ohio, receives its vaccine doses from the state. As the vaccine becomes available to the general public in the coming months, Miller said KPH's ability to hold mass-vaccination clinics – and fully utilize facilities like Energy Fieldhouse and Cooper Progress Park – will depend on how many doses it receives.
"We’re ready to vaccinate whoever, for as long as it takes us," Miller said. "But if we get 100 doses of vaccine or 300 doses of vaccine (per week), that makes it really tough."
Miller said KPH is ready to distribute large quantities of the vaccine when it becomes available, and that local demand has increased in recent weeks, as is evidenced by the health department's growing registration list (to get in line for the vaccine, call KPH's COVID-19 hotline at 740-399-8014).
Now, it's simply a waiting game.
"We’re ready. We don’t have enough vaccine," Miller said. "So that’s the hardest thing for people to conceive. We are not sitting on any – we’ve used every dose we’ve had."