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New Hanover County health department eyes younger 'superspreaders,' waits on federal guidance for J&J vaccine use

Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko delivers an update to New Hanover County commissioners.
New Hanover County
Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko delivers an update to New Hanover County commissioners.

This week, as officials reflected on the state of the county largely shaped by Covid-19 over the last year, the Health and Human Services Department delivered an update on the pandemic. Top concerns include “super-spreaders” among the young and the continuing freeze of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine following concerns of very rare but serious blood-clotting side effects.

Director Donna Fayko, who recently took the reins of the consolidated department, gave commissioners a rundown by the numbers: 18,469 positive cases with 712 currently active. And, some good news on the vaccination front: the health department has administered nearly 50,000 doses, along with 78,000 delivered in the county by New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

As of this week, 33.7% of people have had one of the two-dose vaccine shots, and nearly 27% now fully vaccinated, or about 63,000 people. Fayko added that 70% of the vulnerable 65-and-older population were now fully vaccinated.

Fayko then drew commissioners’ attention to an area of concern:

“We are seeing our young people serve as superspreaders at this time. And so even on the UNCW campus, we have 36 positive cases off campus, and 28 positive on campus. And that's covering the past 14 days. So we're looking at a 7.2% daily positivity rate in our county," Fayko said.

That positivity rate is higher than the statewide goal of around 5%.

Fayko said a recent uptick in cases stemmed from a younger demographic, especially in groups from 18 to 24 and from 25 to 29.

“Again, we're attributing that to our younger people spring break, just coming down having a good time and not being protective using their protective gear and not just following the three W's which we all need to continue to do to keep us all safe. But you will see that we do have, you know, a little bit of an uptick at the department describes it as significant," Fayko said.

Fayko also recapped the human toll Covid-19 has taken, with the wide majority of deaths coming in the senior population.

“The deaths in New Hanover County we've had a total unfortunately 164 deaths 89% were older than 65. We had 9% who fell in the 50 to 64 age category, and 2% in the 25 to 49," she said.

Lastly, Fayko addressed continuing concern with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (also referred to as the Jannsen vaccine).

“So the use of that vaccination is still on pause. And the Center for Disease control's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, they met last week to discuss what's going on with the blood clots that are being seen in the six women across the nation who have received this vaccine. But they did not come away with a recommendation at this point in time. They want to continue pausing for another week to allow them time to look at more data," Fayko said.

The single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine was utilized by many local health departments to help innoculate harder-to-reach communities, since it didn’t require a follow-up appointment (an issue that plagues many vaccination efforts) or the same level of deep-freeze storage as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Nationwide, roughly 7 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered. New Hanover County dosed about 1,350 people with the J&J vaccine, according to Fayko, who encouraged anyone experiencing possible symptoms -- including severe headache, backache, neurologic symptoms, severe abdominal pain, shortness of breath, and leg swelling -- to see a physician.

Fayko said federal officials will meet later this week to consider additional data on potential risks for the J&J vaccine, and make a recommendation on whether or not to re-start its use.

Despite the setback posed by the loss of the J&J vaccine, Fayko said the county is making good progress. The health department is now offering walk-up vaccinations with the Pfizer shot -- residents can receive a shot without making an appointment, a stark contrast to several weeks ago, when appointments were booking out mere minutes after they were opened to the public.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.