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Local public health officials acknowledge vaccine rollout uncertainty, advise patience

NHC Flickr Page
NHC Public Health received its first shipment of vaccine on December 22nd.

  As more North Carolinians are becoming eligible for vaccination,  actually getting a vaccine appointment has become trickier. This has added uncertainty to an already uneven rollout. Localhealth officials have heard these frustrations and advise patience.

Note*: North Carolina is vaccinating those in Groups 1 and 2. That means people who are health care workers, long-term care residents and staff, and those over the age of 65. As for when frontline essential workers (those in Group 3) can start their vaccinations, that’s still unknown. And to learn more about New Hanover County Public Health’s outreach, read the extended conversation at the bottom of this post with Assistant Public Health Director Carla Turner. Resources for vaccination alerts and appointments are also included below.

Carla Turner is the public health assistant director for New Hanover County. She says it’s still difficult to predict when vaccine shipments will arrive each week.

“We continue to improve the process each day, so I feel like we’re getting a little more of a routine in place. But again, we can only do what we can do based on what they’re going to send us. And we get very little notice before it shows up at our front door.”

And she says she understands the frustration with how long it takes to get an appointment, and how quickly they fill up. And for those who have had an appointment, she says she knows that they’ve had to wait in line to receive it. 

While Turner says there hasn’t been a lack of arms to stick, she’s aware of vaccine hesitancy in the community. But she says that getting a vaccine is mainly about safeguarding the people you care about:

“First of all, because I am a vaccinator, and I need to protect myself so that I can continue to help vaccinate. Secondly, I’m a mother of three children, one of whom has some significant special needs and is too young to get the vaccine. So I need to protect myself so I can protect her. And thirdly, I have an 82-year-old father who was able to get himself an appointment and get his first dose, but I need to protect him as well.”

Health officials say that if 70 to 85% of Americans get the vaccine by the summer, we could reach a ‘degree of normality’ by the fall. And Turner says even if you do receive the vaccine, you still need to keep your mask on, wait six feet apart, and wash your hands. 


Extended Interview with Assistant Public Health Director Carla Turner:


Rachel Keith: How have the vaccine rollouts been going so far? What would you like for the community to know about where we started -- and where we are now? 

Carla Turner: I think if we’re looking at the overall picture, I think it’s going fairly well. We have obviously hit some bumps in the road. Part of that is the fact that we get a limited amount from the state each week. For example, I didn't know what I'm supposed to do next week until I got an email last night (January 21st), so it's hard to plan around that. And we face that on a week-to-week basis. So we are hoping, potentially, with the new administration, at the federal level, that we're going to get more notice so that we can plan ahead of time how best to roll out our vaccine. 


RK: Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina secretary of health and human services, says the timeline for the vaccine shipments is the following: Thursday/Friday, you get word on how many vaccines you’ll receive; Monday/Tuesday you can open up appointments, and Wednesday is when they arrive. Is that timeline accurate or it is still unpredictable? 

CT: It’s still unpredictable, but that’s a pretty good summary. We usually get all our supplies between Monday and Wednesday. The state also sends what are called ancillary kits, which have needles, syringes, and alcohol wipes. And so those kits usually come one day and the vaccine comes out next day. So when we get the ancillary kit, we're like, okay, sweet vaccines come in tomorrow. And that's how it's played out for so far. 

RK: Is there something you’d like to dispel for the public about vaccine distribution? 

CT: I think it's important for everybody to know that when the state started allocating vaccine as they received it from the federal government, they initially focused on hospitals, which they should have because that's where our frontline healthcare staff were working. And if we don't have enough people to staff our hospitals, we don't have enough people to take care of our community. People are still having heart attacks; we're still having car accidents, the hospital has lots of people who aren't just Covid patients, so we want to be able to protect that workforce as best we could on the front end. So that's who got it first. 

And then local health departments throughout the state were able to also apply to be providers, and we got our first shipment a week after the hospital got their first shipment. In the beginning, we were pretty much the only ones in town, but now the provider portal has been opened up to local physician practices. So now Wilmington Health and New Hanover Regional Medical Group are getting vaccines, so we've got two big practices in the community that now have access to it to be providers. 


And then they also offered enrollment to federally qualified health centers, which is for us is Med North, as well as free clinics. And I know Cape Fear Clinic has been approved as a provider so slowly but surely is it's pushing out into the private provider community, which will do nothing but help us that way. People aren't having to just rely on the health department to that vaccinate everybody, we can share the load. If four places have vaccines at the same time, we can vaccinate four times as many people. 


RK: I’ve heard you give presentations at the New Hanover County School Board meetings about how the vaccine works. Could you share how it’s not possible for the vaccine to give you the virus? 

CT: Yes, there's no active virus in the vaccine. With mRNA technology, there's a piece of a protein of some sort in the vaccine that when it's injected into your body, your immune system sees that and sees it as COVID-19. And so it begins immediately ramping up and making some antibodies to protect you from that. And so when I get my first dose, I get a portion of immunity, and then when I get my second dose, I should have full immunity. 

I can't emphasize enough that these vaccines went through the same rigorous processes that any other drug development goes through. The fact that is this mRNA technology, that drug companies have been working to develop for decades, is what has allowed us to push this through quicker than other medications and vaccines. And I do think the fact that it was called Operation Warp Speed some people thought, oh my gosh, this is just way too fast. And I totally get that. But no corners were cut. They had to follow the exact same protocols and guidelines that anybody else has to follow when creating a new medication. It's important to trust the science.

RK: How can people sign-up for the vaccine via New Hanover County Public Health? 

CT: We are currently still following Groups 1 and 2. We determine how many doses they're sending us that we've figured out how we need to allocate that. And then we open up our phone lines for people to call in. And yes, we filled up just over 1,400 slots in about two and a half hours on, I think it was Tuesday, January 19th, which is phenomenal. 

But there's a lot of frustration when people can't get through. And then people who have called and have called for 30 minutes, and it's busy the entire time, and then you'll finally get through. But you have to be patient because then you listen to music for about 10 or 15 minutes before a person comes on the phone. So I will tell you if you call our 910-798-6800 number, and you hear the message, and then the music starts: Do not hang up your phone. Eventually, someone will answer and we can try to make an appointment, but right now we don't have any appointments available. So right now the phone lines are our only option, but we are working on some type of online option. But we need to test that because the last thing we want to do is put out an online signup system that potentially wouldn’t work. So we want to make sure we've got that right.

RK: Are you keeping a waiting list right now?

CT: No, we don’t have one right now.

RK: Could you walk us through how the two-dose vaccines work? Do you automatically sign someone up for their second appointment? 

CT: Yes. What happens is when they come through, and I can only speak for what we're doing, when they come through for their first shot, and we then enter them into the CVMS system from a registration standpoint. So we put in our demographic information in CVMS, which is the COVID vaccine management system. That's the state system that they built to manage this vaccine, specifically. So we put them in the system, they then go get their vaccine, and then while they're waiting their 15 minutes after vaccination, we look at what time they got the vaccine, and go ahead and put their second appointment in the system. 

About a day or so later they will get an email from CVMS saying ‘proof of vaccination’ has occurred. It will also give them notice of their second appointment via email. Because we ask for an email address, they should receive an email about a week before their second appointment, reminding them. But we have had lots of people who say they haven't seen that email. So I would encourage folks if you've come to us, and you know your second dose is due in the next week or so if you haven't seen your email, please check your junk and spam folders.

And the timeline for the second dose: For the Moderna vaccine, you get that 28 days after the initial one; and for Pfizer, it’s 21 days after. 

RK: Do we know when we can move into Group 3, which is frontline essential workers?

CT: I don't know. But what I can say to that, is the fact that now that Wilmington Health and New Hanover Regional are able to assist with reaching out and getting members of the community. So we're getting we're having a three-pronged approach right now, which is great. So that's why it's so so important for private providers to enroll as vaccine providers, so they can also reach out into the community as well. So yeah, I cannot forecast when it will be. But I think we are making really good progress working our way through Group 2 so that we can then move into Group 3. And to my knowledge, no one in the state has moved into Group 3 yet. 

RK: Is there anything else you’d like the public to be aware of during this vaccination process?

CT: Thanks to anyone who has been so patient to wait to try to get to the phone lines and has been able to get a vaccine. And if you weren't able to get through, I'm so sorry. But what is important for people to remember, I got my second dose yesterday, so in a couple of weeks, I should have 94.5% immunity. 

As far as effectiveness goes, that doesn't mean that two weeks from yesterday, I take my mask off. We will continue to need people to continue to keep their masks on their faces and wait six feet apart and wash their hands frequently. And by all means, if you do not feel well, please stay home.