Jenkins: Health Department ‘frustrated and exhausted’ battling COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation

Published 2:41 pm Friday, January 21, 2022

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After almost two years of working to ensure the health and safety of the community during the pandemic, it can often feel like a never-ending Groundhog Day for Stanly County Health Director David Jenkins and his colleagues, many of whom are tired and burned out.

Despite their continuing efforts to promote the efficacy of vaccines and the importance of masks, two key measures they say limit the severity of COVID-19 and help save lives, only 43 percent of people are fully vaccinated, one of the lower rates in the state, and many are no longer wearing masks in public.

With the current surge of new cases as a result of the highly transmissible omicron variant, which has led to a spike in new cases and an increase in hospitalizations, the health department has not seen a notable uptick in people getting vaccinated, Jenkins said.

“It’s kind of a slow trickle, you get what you get,” he said. “Anybody who comes in, we’re happy to get them either vaccinated or boosted.”

Only about 600 people were vaccinated with at least one dose in December, according to state health data, down from about 700 in November and the fewest on record. In January, about 300 people have gotten the shot.

In the past year, since vaccines were first made available, close to 150 people have died from COVID-19, which accounts for about 62 percent of the 238 total deaths since the pandemic began.

Whether due to believing in conspiracy theories, trafficking in misinformation or another reason, part of the population has been resistant to getting vaccinated and following other mitigation measures. Despite their best attempts, the health department has not been able to connect with these people.

“I think most of the staff is just frustrated and exhausted at this point,” Jenkins said, “because we keep sharing the same information and it doesn’t seem to get through because individuals have their minds made up.”

In the last two years, Jenkins said, a handful of employees retired and the department has struggled to replace them.

“It has been tremendously difficult to hire nurses due to competition in hiring and salary,” Jenkins said.

One of the biggest arguments over the course of the pandemic in the community has been about masking in schools, with many parents vehemently opposed, often citing inaccurate information that wearing masks negatively impacts students’ health. For the first few months of the school year, when masks were required, several people verbally accosted board members during highly contentious board meetings. Things got so bad that Jeff Chance unexpectedly resigned as chairman in October after revealing his life had been threatened.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services recommend mask-wearing in districts with high community transmission, which includes Stanly, the decision has been left to each individual school board.

Stanly County Schools has been mask optional since October. With a surge in new cases across the county this month — more than one-fourth of all students and staff were in quarantine last week, Jenkins has talked with school board members about temporarily switching back to requiring masks, but no action has been taken. Other nearby districts, including Cabarrus County Schools, have recently reinstated masks.

“I’ve met with the board and made that recommendation, but I don’t think there’s an appetite for that because of the outcry from so many people,” Jenkins said.

Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis said that he’s not aware of any school board meetings scheduled to discuss masking before the regular February board meeting.

As of Wednesday, 85 of North Carolina’s 115 school districts require face coverings, according to a database maintained by the N.C. School Boards Association.

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.

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