• 73°

Citizens voice concerns as county struggles with vaccine distribution from state

Norwood resident David Bader spent several hours Jan. 25 calling the health department’s COVID-19 vaccine hotline, trying to reach someone to book an appointment. Like many in the county, he had no luck.

“I was very frustrated in their handling of the phone lines,” he said, noting whenever he called he would get into an endless loop before being kicked off the line.

He made some progress the next day, as he was at least able to talk to someone — though the person told him the department was not currently making appointments.

This was likely due to the fact that the health department received no vaccines last week, as doses were diverted to support mass vaccination sites like the one at Bank of America Stadium over the weekend.

“It’s ridiculous that…I have to drive all the way to Charlotte to get a vaccine because they moved our vaccines from here to there,” Bader said.

He ultimately was able to schedule an appointment with Atrium Health in Concord, though he won’t receive the first dose of the vaccine until mid-March. He still hopes to schedule an earlier appointment with the health department, and has been keeping an eye on the department’s Facebook page to see when they will start to offer vaccinations again.

Bader and his wife, Kathy, who are both over 65, want to get vaccinated so they can visit his mother, who lives in a memory care facility in Pennsylvania.

“We just don’t feel safe traveling at this point without having the vaccinations,” he said.

Many people, like Bader, have faced similar struggles in scheduling vaccine appointments. The county commissioners and health department staff have fielded similar complaints from people in the county.

The department received no new vaccine doses last week, which forced it to pivot and reschedule appointments. Some appointments for this week have also been rescheduled.

The health department received 300 new vaccine doses on Tuesday, said Wendy Growcock, public education specialist. The department is not making new first dose appointments, though it is reaching out to people who are due to receive their second doses.

“We are working through the backlog of people who were scheduled last week and had to reschedule to this week,” Growcock said.

Behind the scenes of the vaccine rollout

In a presentation before the county commissioners on Monday, public health educator Jennifer Layton acknowledged the hardships over the past few weeks in receiving new doses.

“It has been a challenge within our department to decide how we can best schedule and coordinate appointments and still meet the need in the community,” Layton said. “We don’t have enough vaccine.”

She told the commissioners that after having consistently received weekly vaccine allocations during the end of December and beginning of January, it came “to an abrupt halt” in mid-January.

Told by the state Department of Health and Human Services that vaccine providers had to get shots in the arms of patients as quickly as possible or the state could lose out on future federal allocations, the health department ramped up its efforts, burning through doses while vaccinating up to 300 people a day.

When the department did not receive any new doses from the state, as they were diverted to mass vaccination sites, it coordinated with Atrium Health Stanly, which helped procure several additional rounds of doses.

Two weeks ago, the department was asked to clear its backlog and administer all available vaccine to those who need it. Appointments were scheduled with the thought that the vaccine allotment would be consistent. Once appointments were scheduled, NCDHHS announced the state had no vaccine available.

With thousands of people still needing to be vaccinated, the department received word late last Thursday that it would receive 300 vaccine doses each week for the next three weeks, much less than it had received before.

“We were disappointment and we were deflated,” Layton said, noting that officials in the county have been calling people all across the state trying to procure additional doses. Atrium Health Stanly President Brian Freeman was able to transfer a few hundred more doses to the department.

There are also several stipulations that have to be adhered to with the new allocation, including that vaccinations occur on Thursday and Friday and that data is entered into the COVID-19 Vaccine Management System (CVMS) by Monday evening of the following week.

“That means the minute that the person gets a shot, we have to have runners bring in the paperwork into the building rapidly…where we have a team inside and they’re firing away, putting data in (the CVMS software),” Layton said.

She added that if the data is not entered by the appropriate time, it could affect how much vaccine the department is allotted the following week.

Though the department expects more vaccine to come (with possibly larger doses after the three weeks), the state is continuing to prioritize large vaccination events like the ones in Charlotte, which puts older people in the county at a distinct disadvantage.

“They’re not going to drive to Charlotte, park and walk a few blocks to get that vaccine when they can drive right here and stay in their car and never get out,” she said.

The department can also not schedule appointments each week until vaccine doses arrive, though people can be placed on a waiting list.

In order to ensure historically marginalized populations in the county receive access to vaccines, as required by the state, the department is working with the Stanly County Minority Health Council to help spread the word about the need to get vaccinated.

Responding to questions from commissioners, Layton said if people go somewhere out of the county to receive the first vaccine dose, they should go back to the same location to receive the second dose.

By the numbers 

As of Monday night, the county had an estimated 602 active cases, with a cumulative total of 6,108 cases since March, according to Layton. About 5,300 people who had the virus have since recovered.

An additional 37 new cases were reported on Thursday.

Deaths have increased to 115, which Layton said was “significant for a rural community,” while 23 people are currently hospitalized.

As of Thursday evening, 3,735 people have received the first vaccine dose while 31 people have received the second dose, according to data from the health department.

Stanly’s rolling seven-day average positivity rate is at 10.4 percent, per the NCDHHS, higher than the state’s current overall average of 7.2 percent.

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

email author More by Chris