By Michelle Wagner | Outer Banks Voice on January 16, 2021
On Jan. 14, North Carolina health officials announced that the state would immediately adjust its COVID-19 vaccination prioritization to match federal guidelines issued just days before, giving the go-ahead for vaccine providers to begin inoculating residents who are 65 years and older. The move expanded on the previous pool of individuals eligible for a vaccine, which had included healthcare workers, staff and residents of long-term care facilities, and those 75 years and older.
The announcement added another layer of challenges that local vaccine providers face as they work to implement a massive and uncertain vaccine rollout that is slowly trickling down to Americans in the midst of a deadly pandemic —one that requires that everyone receive two shots. For the public, the fluid and ever-evolving landscape of that rollout has resulted in some confusion and some frustration.
For example, as North Carolina confirmed it would open up vaccinations for the 65 and older population – which puts them in line for a vaccine before frontline essential workers such as teachers and law enforcement – Dare County Schools also announced that the county health department would hold a separate vaccine clinic for school staff on Jan. 23.
On the same day, the Dare County Health and Human Services Department (DHHS) also announced it would be accepting vaccination appointment requests for individuals 65 years of age and older, but cautioned that the department is only receiving 200 to 400 vaccines each week. That means, the DHHS noted, that “We anticipate it could take 6-8 weeks before all individuals in these Prioritization Phases who wish to be vaccinated receive one.”
On Jan. 7, Currituck County Schools Superintendent Matt Lutz reported that Albemarle Regional Health Services (ARHS) — which operates the county’s vaccination program — had already inoculated 155 Currituck school staff members. When asked why school staffers had been vaccinated early, an ARHS official said they fell into the group that includes healthcare workers at high risk for COVID exposure and residents and staff in long-term care facilities, but declined to comment further on how they fit into that group.
Also on Jan. 15, the Hyde County Health Department issued a release stating that due to the state’s new priority list that includes 65-year-olds, frontline essential workers who had scheduled vaccination appointments should expect to receive a call canceling those appointments for the time being. “Please accept our sincerest apologies for this,” the statement noted.
To get a better sense of the logistics and challenges surrounding this unprecedented vaccination program, the Voice this week emailed a series of questions to public health officials in Dare County, Hyde County and at the ARHS.
One theme that emerges in their responses is that there is little advance notice about how many doses of vaccine will be available in a given week. Dare DHHS Communications Specialist Kelly Nettnin says the county learns on Thursday or Friday how many doses it will be receiving the following Tuesday. ARHS Healthy Communities Coordinator Amy Underhill explains that her agency does not learn of its weekly allotment until early in that same week.
While state officials make the decision on how many doses to distribute to counties, Hyde County Public Health Director Luana Gibbs acknowledges that, “I honestly do not know what their formula [is].”
To date, there have been 1,180 people inoculated in Dare County, with another 400 scheduled to be vaccinated at a Jan. 16 clinic. And as of Jan. 12, 250 had received first doses of the vaccine in Hyde County. In a Facebook post on Jan. 15, ARHS said it had administered 2,300 doses in Currituck County and a total of almost 12,000 in the eight-county area covered by ARHS.
When asked how much leeway is given to each county or region in terms of the vaccination program, Dare County’s Davies notes that while the state determines the Prioritization Phases, “Individual Counties are able to determine how they set up their vaccination clinics and able to determine when they believe they have vaccinated all individuals in their current Prioritization Phase.”
Hyde County’s Gibbs says that one decision public health officials in that county have made is that “if we have a break in schedule with no appointments, rather than waste vaccine, we see people from the next group. We should not let it sit on our refrigerator shelves or waste it…”
The methods by which each of the three counties register individuals for vaccination varies, according to the responses by public health officials. In Hyde, residents are asked to call the department and staff will then pre-register them online. ARHS depends on an online registration form that can be found on its website, and Dare County allows residents to either register by phone or online.
In Hyde and Dare, clinics are held indoors for individuals with scheduled appointments. While ARHS also holds drive-thru clinics, those are by appointment for those already registered.
After receiving the vaccine, individuals at area clinics have to wait 15 minutes for observation after receiving the vaccine. If an individual has a history of anaphylaxis, they are required to wait 30 minutes.
As for whether the vaccine is being embraced by the community, public health directors in the region say they see evidence that it is.
Gibbs says there is more acceptance of the vaccine than she had anticipated, both on the mainland and on Ocracoke Island. Dare County Health and Human Services Director Davies concurs.
“So far, we have vaccinated healthcare workers, who know the importance of vaccines and have the ability to research the vaccine and understand the studies,” she noted. As for the 75 year and older group, Davies added, “These individuals were raised during a time period when vaccines were gaining more momentum.”
Explaining that vaccines for Influenza, Polio and Whooping Cough were developed during this generation’s early years, Davies concludes: “Many of these adults can remember a time during their lives when there were debilitating diseases and vaccines were not available to prevent them yet.”
In Hyde County, call 252-928-1511.
And for Currituck County residents, register with ARHS at www.arhs-nc.org/information/COVID-19/vaccines/