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NHC commissioners get personal vaccinations ahead of schedule -- other local officials still waiting

Benjamin Schachtman
The New Hanover County government center.

Most state and local elected officials in North Carolina are still waiting for their turn to receive a shot, which they’ll be eligible for in the upcoming Group 3 of the state’s vaccine rollout. But New Hanover County commissioners received their first doses a little early, while the county was still technically in Group 1.

A spokesperson for New Hanover County confirmed that all five commissioners were vaccinated following the board’s agenda review meeting on Wednesday, January 13. The vaccinations were not publicly announced.

At the time, the county was technically in Group 1 (75 and over) under the state and county’s plan, which shifted to add all those over 65 the day after the meeting. However, it’s worth noting that the CDC had changed guidelines, adding those over 65, the day prior to the meeting. Under those federal guidelines, commissioners Bill Rivenbark and Rob Zapple would have both been eligible. The other three members, Deb Hays, Jonathan Barfield, Jr., and Chair Julia Olson-Boseman would not have been eligible under either state or federal guidelines, since they would ordinarily fall into Group 3, which still hasn’t begun yet.

According to the county, “upon having a few additional doses left from a day of vaccinations, the five commissioners were prioritized by the county based on their importance in ensuring the county’s governance continues.”

The county confirmed that the decision to vaccinate the commissioners “when additional vaccine was available and needed to be used”was approved by County Manager Chris Coudriet.

In response to a request for comment, Olson-Boseman issued the following statement:


Commissioners are leaders in this community, elected by our constituents to govern New Hanover County. And I certainly want to keep each person on the board as safe as possible, as they are essential to ensure county governance continues, and they are asked to meet in person as a group and go out in the community to do the job the people elected us to do. When the vaccine was offered to us, we each were willing and eager to have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

The county confirmed that one top staff member had also been vaccinated, the assistant county manager who oversees Health and Human Services. The county noted that in this one case, there was an additional dose available from a vial that had already been opened, and county staff were eager not to waste any. Neither Coudriet or any other top administrative employees have been vaccinated ahead of their group.

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office said that Sheriff Ed McMahon had also not yet received a vaccine (McMahon falls into Group 3, both as an elected official and as a law enforcement officer).

Elsewhere in southeastern North Carolina, neither Wilmington, Brunswick County or Pender County has vaccinated their elected officials or top staff ahead of their groups. A spokesperson for Wilmington confirmed that "Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes, Councilman Clifford Barnett, and Councilman Kevin O’Grady have received their vaccines, as part of their designated group."


Pender County spokesperson Tammy Proctor confirmed that neither the county’s sheriff, commissioners, nor county manager had received a shot. 

Brunswick County spokesperson Meagan Kascsak noted that health privacy laws prevented revealing who had received a vaccine, and that elected officials and staff are not required to report whether or not they get vaccinated.

Kascsak added: “Elected officials and staff do not have greater access to vaccines than the general public and must schedule their vaccine appointment following the state’s guidance on eligibility the same as everyone else. If a staff person or elected official meets the requirements outlined for Group 1 or Group 2, then they are allowed to schedule a vaccine appointment.” 


Governor Roy Cooper’s office confirmed that he had not yet received a vaccination, but was “ready to roll up his sleeve when it is his turn.”


North Carolina’s vaccine rollout has been one of the slower, and rockier, in the nation. Appointments for vaccines have been filling up almost immediately.


On the day the commissioners were vaccinated, 955 appointments for Group 1 filled up in less than three hours. Now, appointments are going even faster. On Tuesday, January 26, New Hanover Regional Medical Center booked 800 appointments for Group 1 and 2 in less than fifteen minutes.



[Broadcast transcript]

Hannah Breisinger: Ben, tell me what is going on here. County Commissioners got their vaccine early. What's the gist?


Ben Schachtman: So, the county has confirmed that the commissioners all got their vaccination shot on Wednesday, January 13, after their agenda review meeting, which wouldn't be a big deal, except that elected officials aren't really in line yet for that.


HB: Yeah. And so what group are the elected officials actually in?


BS: Sure, and I know this has been hard to follow, because it's changed a bit, but the elected officials are in group three, which hasn't started yet. And at the time, the county was technically still in group one.


HB: What is the county's response to all of this?


BS: The county's approach to this was that they had a few -- they they claim that they had a few additional doses left at the end of the day of vaccinating. And that they sort of made the decision to prioritize the commissioners and in their words, “based on their importance in ensuring the county's governance continues,” and they also did this for one assistant county manager, same deal. They actually had like one or two doses left in a vial that was already opened, didn't want to waste the medication. So they sort of prioritized a staff member.


HB: And that's despite the fact that vaccines have been going out the door, flying off the shelves in terms --


BS: It's hard to... we're not trying to cast aspersions. But it's hard to ignore that even on the day that this meeting happened back on the 13th, 955 appointments for group one, were filled up in less than three hours.


HB: Wow. Okay, so what have commissioners said about this, have they responded at all?


BS: So, Chair Julia Olson-Boseman did issue a statement responding to this and basically said that she wanted to do as much as possible keep everyone on the board safe -- we'll have a full statement on the web version of a story -- but basically that you know, they have an important job, they want to keep each other safe and when the vaccine was offered, everyone on the board was willing and eager to take it.


HB: Alright, and we are talking about New Hanover County. So what is the status in Brunswick and Pender, have any elected officials over there received anything early?


BS: No. As a matter of fact, neither Brunswick Pender Wilmington, New Hanover County Sheriff, no other elected officials have been vaccinated ahead of their group -- a few because they were 75 or 65 or older, did actually get vaccinated in group 75 or 65.


HB: And Governor Roy Cooper hasn't even received his, is that correct?


BS: Yes, we confirmed with his office this morning. He is still waiting his turn but he said he will roll up his sleeves when the time comes.


HB: All right. And I know we just touched on this a little bit. But how's the vaccine rollout been going in general? Like, what are we up against right now?


BS: Yeah, North Carolina is one of the slowest and kind of rockiest of the vaccine rollouts. We had some reporting earlier in this week. You know, we've seen routinely where it'll be announced that there are appointments available and then they’ll fill up. In fact, just today, New Hanover Regional Medical Center announced they had somewhere around eight to nine -- I think they had 800 open spots -- filled up in 15 minutes. So, it's still tough. Local health officials say they hear these frustrations, they acknowledge them, and they’re just asking people to be as patient as possible.


HB: All right. Well, WHQR’s Ben Schachtman, talking about vaccine rollout and county commissioners -- New Hanover County Commissioners. Thanks for talking to me, Ben. 

BS: No problem.