New Hanover County's new 'PanOps' director on vaccine hesitancy, misinformation, and challenges on the horizon
New Hanover County recently committed $3.7 million in Covid-relief funding to a new Pandemic Operations team it's calling 'PanOps.' In addition to helping relieve county staff of the extra, covid-related workload they've been carrying for nearly two years, the PanOps team will have to face new and evolving challenges, as well.
Two years ago, county staff tacked on brand new challenges to their workload — a call center, contact tracing, testing — and later the vaccine rollout. It’s taken a toll, and pushed the county to start considering a dedicated pandemic team — believed to be one of the first of its kind in the region — headed by Jonathan Campbell.
“And that was separate of their duties they were already doing," Campbell said. " And I think we were started looking at what can we do to get these personnel who have accepted all these additional duties back to their job?”
Campbell has served as a lead officer in the National Guard’s vaccine efforts and ran the pandemic response team at Vidant Duplin Hospital in Kenansville. Now he's taking over a host of efforts: in addition to long-term vaccination and testing efforts, there’s still contract tracing of outbreak clusters, and, of course, communications.
Because PanOps isn’t just battling Covid, it will also have to battle misinformation. A major goal: understanding the evolving causes of vaccine hesitancy. Vaccination rates are stagnating in some demographics — suggesting that there are some portions of the population that just can't be won over. Asked if that's a battle he thinks PanOps can win, Campbell said he thinks his team can move the needle.
“You know what we're looking at different targeted initiatives. I think it's not a one size fits all package. So certain individuals may have hesitancy to receive the vaccine or a booster for a specific reason. We want to try to understand those reasons a little bit better, and maybe tailor education or support to that particular community," he said.
Hesitancy's many faces don't always share a genealogy — what drives mistrust of the medical establishment in historically Black and Hispanic communities likely has little to do with concerns about averse reactions or the impact on pregnant women or skepticism about the transparency of pharmaceutical companies.
Part of the problem is a real breakdown in the faith in institutions for some Americans; that's manifested locally in residents who question and criticize established organizations like the CDC or WHO, and the mainstream news outlets that report their findings, when they speak at meetings of the school board, county commissioners, or heath and human services board — often citing studies and doctors they've found online.
So, where does Campbell recommend getting his information?
"You've really got to look at the peer-reviewed medical journals, the peer-reviewed medical resources that are out there. Some of the things that are generically accepted by the medical community. So you're looking at some of the big name journals, Journal American Medical Association, for example. There's some very robust podcasts out there this weekend — This Week In Virology is a specifically really good podcast that dives into things. There's a infectious disease provider on there that will dive on the studies who will also answer call-in questions that get posed," he said.
Even with reputable sources, Campbell said, you've got to dig a little deeper.
"You've really got to look, even with some of those big journals, you've got to look at the individual article. And you've got to kind of look at the methods, was it a well formed study? And that can be challenging because sometimes statistical analysis and methods can be a little hard to follow. But that's why one of the keys is that we can get an epidemiologist, [or] myself in my medical background, trying to dive into some of these studies to making sure that the message we are putting out does reflect good medical literature and good medical knowledge," Campbell said.
In addition to testing, vaccinations, communications — including with surrounding counties, since Covid pays little respect to jurisdictional boundaries — there's also challenges on the horizon, especially the potential for future variants.
At the same time, there are also growing calls to start picturing what life will be like under 'endemic' conditions — that is, a post-emergency way of handling Covid. Campbell said he doesn't think we're there yet.
"That's tough. That is a tough one. I've tried to read some articles, but I don't feel we have a solid enough footing to really make a determination on it yet. Is it going to be endemic to a certain degree? Probably. What's that going to look like? What are the implications of it? That's really challenging to say — we unfortunately still need more time to figure that out."
PanOps is a three year pilot program, after which the county will evaluate its success, and could fund it full time — because, unfortunately, it’s hard to predict how long Covid will stick around, or what will come after it.