To date, Nevada County has received 10,625 COVID-19 vaccines, a blend of both first and second doses of the Moderna and Pfizer options that are currently available across the United States.
As Nevada County’s new public health officer, effective on Jan.1, Dr. Kellermann brings his international medical experience back to the county, where he previously spent two decades as a family medicine doctor. During that time, Kellermann helped create the Western Sierra Medical Clinic in Grass Valley.
More recently, Dr. Kellermann worked in Africa with Batwa pygmies and founded the Bwindi Community Hospital and the Uganda Nursing School – Bwindi. Nevada County residents initiated The Kellermann Foundation, a nonprofit organization supporting the ongoing work in Africa.
Below, Dr. Kellermann shares his thoughts on the latest COVID-19 vaccine efforts on a local level, what our future looks like with the coronavirus, and how his experiences may apply to the journey.
Moonshine Ink: California ranks in the bottom 10 of states in terms of COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Considering that, what positives and negatives have you seen with Nevada County’s own distribution?
Dr. Scott Kellermann: It is my impression that Nevada County has done well with vaccine distribution. We have progressed through the 1A phase and are moving into 1B and K-12 teachers and emergency service workers are being immunized, as are those over 75. The main problem that we face is not lack of coordination, but rather the lack of vaccine.
Both sides of the Sierras are well poised to deliver the vaccines when they become more plentiful. Regarding eastern county, Tahoe Forest Hospital has been a dynamic partner regarding the provision of immunizations. Harry Weis, the CEO of Tahoe Forest Hospital, and Shawni Coll, Tahoe Forest’s chief medical officer, have been exceptionally proactive initiating vaccine clinics and are looking at several exciting options in an effort to immunize eastern Nevada County.
MI: How does Nevada County stand out in its need for COVID-19 vaccinations?
SK: Nevada County has the highest percentage of adults over the age of 65 of any county in California. Approximately 30% of our residents are over 65, as opposed to Sacramento County at 14% and L.A. County at 13%. This translates to well over 28,000 Nevada County residents being in the 1B category. This is a heavy lift and can only be accomplished through collaborative relationships.
MI: Are you considering the amount of non-primary residents living in the area? Will those people have an equal chance of being vaccinated as primary residents?
SK: We have been immunizing the people who work in Nevada County. A portion of the K-12 teachers resided elsewhere, but because they educate our children, they were immunized.
MI: President Joe Biden wants 100 million vaccinations in 100 days — admittedly an ambitious goal. What’s your ambitious goal for Nevada County?
SK: For many years, I have lived and worked in southwestern Uganda, adjacent to the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the region of an Ebola outbreak claiming around 4,000 lives. Due to the recent availability of an Ebola vaccine, the Ebola epidemic was declared ended a few months ago. If Nevada County hospitals, pharmacies, clinicians, and public health [workers] are coordinated and focused on the goal of immunizing Nevada County, I would hope that by early summer our lives will be vastly different from what we are experiencing now. It will be time for celebration!
MI: Do you think Nevada County can be considered in isolation for herd immunity?
SK: Herd immunity can only be accomplished through immunizations. Some have considered that herd immunity could be achieved through spread of the virus, but the attendant death rate and morbidity from the virus to achieve 70% to 85% immunity is unacceptable. The wearing of masks, physical distancing, hand washing, and avoiding public gathering is mandatory until this county is immunized.
MI: What’s your understanding about the current vaccines’ efficacy against the newer, more spreadable strains of the virus?
SK: The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines elicit multiple antibodies against many sites on the COVID-19 spike protein. So far, they are effective in preventing infection from the COVID variants, but continued vigilance is needed.
MI: Could you speak to any outstanding allergic or other negative reactions for those who’ve received the vaccine in the county?
SK: I was a participant in the Pfizer trial at UC Davis. I researched the literature regarding messenger RNA vaccines. The science is impeccable. The efficacy of the vaccine is extraordinary and the reactions are few and minimal. Over 8,000 immunizations have been administered in our county with no serious side effects. Pain at the injection site, some lethargy, mild fevers, chills, and headache — mainly after the second shot — are the most common complaints.
MI: Do we know if those vaccinated are still able to carry the coronavirus?
SK: The science is still out. We hope to know soon, but in the interim, non-pharmaceutical preventive interventions are appropriate.
MI: You are a senior consultant for the Centers for Research in Emerging Infectious Diseases that helps identify the threat of novel viruses in the hopes of avoiding pandemics such as the one we’re experiencing right now. What have you learned from COVID-19 that will assist in this battle in the future?
SK: Pandemics have been a common occurrence over the history of mankind. In recent memory, swine flu, Zika virus, SARS, MERS, and hantavirus have been problematic. Most emerging infectious diseases are zoonoses — animal to human transmission of diseases. The Centers for Research in Emerging Diseases will have a base of operations at the Bwindi Community Hospital, adjacent to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. UC Davis’ veterinary team will be researching the primates and bats of the forest, searching for novel viruses, and the Bwindi Community Hospital will study approximately 3,000 residents, who reside next to the forest, searching for viruses that have migrated to the human population. It is hoped that if a novel, virulent virus is discovered that we can quickly develop strategies to mitigate its spread and prevent a future pandemic
MI: You have quite a colorful history of medical experience! How did your time in Africa inform your current work?
SK: In 2001, my wife and I relocated from Nevada County to a remote area of Uganda, adjacent to the Congo, to assist the Batwa pygmies. Several years earlier, the Batwa had been evicted from the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest when the forest was declared a World Heritage Site to protect the endangered mountain gorillas. Initial studies indicated that the Batwa had a life expectancy to only age 28 and an annual income of $25. It is a resource-poor area that lacks paved roads, electricity, and running water. We spent much of the first few years living in a tent at the Batwa settlements, learning their language, culture, and traditions. As there was no health care available, at our mobile medical clinics we would treat 200-500 patients daily. Our ICU was under the shade of trees, IV bottles hanging from branches secured with vines. The IVs dripped life saving quinine into the veins of children suffering from cerebral malaria, which is universally fatal if untreated. It was apparent to us that the Batwas’ needs were overwhelming and that we lacked adequate resources to address these challenges.
Over the years, as a result of collaborations with the abafumu (traditional healers), the local population, and many Nevada County residents, the 175 Bwindi Community Hospital has emerged, which is ranked one of the finest hospitals in East Africa. Additionally, there is now a 400-student, highly esteemed nursing school. More importantly, the Batwa are extricating themselves out of their cycle of poverty. If these collaborations have produced such fine results in a resource-poor, isolated part of the world, cannot our collaborations in Nevada County result in an end to this virus?
MI: Upon your arrival as public health officer, you mentioned that Nevada County has expressed kindness and generosity for you and your family. Can you describe how such actions were shown?
SK: I had worried that spending almost 15 years in sub-Saharan Africa would result in the waning of valued relationships with my Nevada County friends. The opposite proved to be true. Over 200 Nevada County residents have visited and spent time at the Bwindi, some for a few weeks, others for years. Our lives have been considerably blessed by the engagement of Nevada County residents; they have lifted us up when we fell and were the wind under our wings. We have learned much from our time in Africa, but our greatest lesson was an appreciation of the inestimable gift of relationships. Thank you, Nevada County!