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With COVID on the rise, health officials are desperate to vaccinate holdouts

The COVID vaccination clinic at Independence Mall is guarded by Tamatoa from Disney's Moana.
Kelly Kenoyer
The COVID vaccination clinic at Independence Mall is guarded by Tamatoa from Disney's Moana.

The Delta variant of COVID has made its way to the Cape Fear region, even as vaccinations hover at 50%. With cases on the rise, public health officials are struggling to convince residents to get a shot.

The new and more dangerous version of COVID-19, the Delta variant, is 50% more spreadable than previous iterations and may make patients sicker.

Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease specialist at Duke University, said infections tend to hit patients quicker with the new variant. “We have seen an increase in younger individuals in the hospital," he said, adding that the elderly may be a lower proportion because they have a higher rate of vaccination.

With the arrival of Delta in North Carolina, COVID cases have ballooned. New Hanover County saw 334 new cases of COVID-19 in the last week of July, compared to half that number the week before.

The test positivity rate has also jumped — from under 2% to 5% in New Hanover County. Assistant Health Director Carla Turner said at least 70% of COVID cases in North Carolina are the new Delta variant, and that’s led to worse outcomes.

“Several weeks ago, there were two people in the hospital. Two," she said. "Last week, there were 30. So we’re starting to see those numbers creep back up.”

In response to the surging virus, the CDC last week reinstated its guideline that all residents wear masks in areas with high or substantial rates of community transmission. That guideline applies to the majority of the state: 87 out of 100 counties in North Carolina fall into those, including every county in the southeastern region.

Duke researcher David Montefiori said there still aren't enough people immune to coronavirus to prevent dangerous outbreaks.

“What we're learning from the Delta variant is that we haven't reached that point of herd immunity yet," he said. "So clearly, we need to be more rigorous in our approach to vaccinating people, I think we need to vaccinate younger people too.

Experts are saying the best protection against the virus is still vaccination. Even when there are breakthrough cases, vaccinated people are much less likely to be hospitalized or get very sick. And less than a tenth of a percent of the vaccinated population has contracted COVID at all- compared to about 10% of the overall U.S population. But with Delta's unusually high viral load, anyone can still spread the virus if they aren’t masked while infected-whether they know they’re infected or not.

Meanwhile, vaccination rates have plateaued. Carla Turner said the county used to vaccinate up to 1000 people a day when vaccinations were at their height.

But as of last week, the county's main vaccination clinic sees just six to 35 patients a day for vaccinations, she said. "It's very frustrating.”

To try and bring more people in, the county has a standing clinic at Independence Mall every Tuesday and Thursday- it goes till 7 p.m. to capture the after-work crowd.

Few come into that clinic, though. The national guard is helping to manage crowds, but most shoppers wander past the clinic- housed in an unoccupied shop- and look in without entering. On a Tuesday afternoon, only three people went in over the course of 20 minutes. Turner said that's fairly standard.

"At the mall we see between 50 and 70 a day, when we're there for about six or seven hours," she said.

James Burch and his brother convinced their mom to get the shot at the mall after they got their second dose of the vaccine a month ago.

"Every day for a couple weeks we were reminding her, this isn't going anywhere, we need to get this done," he said. "Trust in the science, it's safe and it's basically like a safety blanket."

Burch said his mother agreed to get the shot after her seeing several family members get it and come out the other side safely. He brought her to the mall because it's where he went for the shot, and he said it's convenient.

Turner said it's also helpful to have clinics that aren't in government buildings, in case anyone feels uncomfortable with the government. The county has also done a few clinics at breweries and other outside events, with several more planned. But past attempts have had mixed success- like the clinic at Flytrap Brewery last month, which got just 16 new vaccinations.

“I can look at it two ways," Turner said. "Like, Gosh, we only did 16. I wish we'd done more. or Hey, we did 16! So we got 16 people vaccinated who would have been unvaccinated otherwise.”

The next vaccination drive is at Waterline Brewing on Friday, August 6, and Turner hopes it brings out the newly returned UNCW students.

"We're hoping to maybe really get that 18 to 26 population to step up and get vaccinated," she said.

And the county might also put clinics in area middle schools during open house. "That's a group we certainly want to get vaccinated, the 12 and older group. we can offer it to the students and their families- anybody who’s eligible.”

Turner said vaccinating the public is an uphill battle. There are two camps of people who remain unvaccinated: the apathetic, and the incredulous. She said the first group is likely to get the vaccine if it’s easy and convenient, while the second requires some convincing. But she hopes both will come around eventually.

The COVID vaccine is free anywhere you can get it- even if you don’t have insurance. You don’t have to get the shot with the county- pharmacies and other clinics also carry the dose. For more info on where to get vaccinated, go to myspot.nc.gov.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant new to the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.