Raleigh, N.C. — Although North Carolina remains focused on vaccinating health care workers and residents and staff in long-term care facilities against coronavirus, some area counties are also starting to vaccinate people ages 75 and older.
But the move, as well as the state’s overall vaccine rollout effort, is causing confusion and frustration.
The Wilson County Health Department, for example, is using some of the 800 doses of vaccine it has for seniors, but officials told people they had to call and make an appointment to be vaccinated. Phone problems and an overwhelming response snagged that plan on Monday, however, leading many people to show up at the health department’s offices instead.
“I’m 82 years old, and my husband is 87, and has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. So, of course, of course we want it,” Undine Lamm said of the vaccine.
The couple drove from Elm City to the health department offices in Wilson to make an appointment, only to be turned away.
“We’re here to try to make an appointment to get our COVID vaccine shot,” Lamm said. “I’ve called 12 [or] 13 times this morning, tried to get through and can’t get through. … The lady says, ‘Well, you have to call to make the appointment. That’s the only way to make it.'”
Bill Robinette of Wilson had the same problem.
“I called a whole lot, and then I said I’ll just come out here in person and see if I can get an appointment that way, but they said you still have to call and make a telephone call,” Robinette said.
Annette Clark, 82, was able to set up her appointment last week, and she got her first dose of the vaccine on Monday.
“It was painless, it was effortless and I was in and out,” Clark said. “This is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Wilson County Health Director Teresa Ellen said she hopes to have the phone problems fixed by Tuesday. The department also is working to create an online portal for making vaccination appointments.
Other counties also are opening vaccinations to people 75 and older:
- Wayne County will hold vaccination clinics 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday at the Maxwell Center in Goldsboro and the same time Thursday at the Peggy M. Seegars Senior Center in Goldsboro.
- Person County will hold vaccination clinics 1:30 to 4 p.m. Wednesday and 9:30 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 5 p.m. Thursday at the county Human Services office in Roxboro.
- UNC Health Southeastern will start vaccinating people in Robeson County on Wednesday.
- Nothampton County also will start senior vaccinations on Wednesday.
- Halifax County expects to start vaccinating seniors by next week.
All counties require appointments for vaccinations.
Although each county is handling senior citizen vaccinations differently, Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said last week that officials hope to have some statewide guidance this week.
Wake County has released a statement saying local doctors and hospitals are working with the health department on a joint strategy to vaccinate seniors.
“Right now, there is not enough vaccine to move to Phase 1b. Wake County is vaccinating those who qualify for Phase 1a with the limited supply available. Phase 1a includes thousands of health care workers, medical staff and first responders who engage with COVID-19 patients, staff helping to administer vaccines, as well as long-term care staff and residents,” reads a statement on the county’s website.
County officials said 3,800 people are on a waiting list for vaccinations, but the county has only 2,020 doses left, meaning more than 1,700 people have to wait for the next vaccine shipment to get their shot.
Some 462,000 doses of vaccine have been shipped to North Carolina since mid-December, but only a fraction of them have been administered. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that North Carolina has one of the lowest per-capita vaccination rates so far, ahead of only Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas and Mississippi.
DHHS spokeswoman Amy Adams Ellis said the pace of vaccinations needs to pick up now that the holidays have passed. To push counties toward that end, the state has notified all hospitals and county health departments that future vaccine shipments will be based on how many people are getting vaccinated locally – more shots mean more doses.
The state also is working on getting more providers to administer vaccinations, Ellis said, which would expand the process.
Doctors’ offices also waiting
People 75 and older are just the first group in the Phase 1b rollout plan. The second group in that phase includes health care workers who aren’t treating COVID-19 patients and “essential” workers 50 and older, including first responders, teachers, postal workers and supermarket employees. The third group in that phase includes essential workers 49 and younger.
Dr. Brian Bowman, a Cary pediatrician, complained to DHHS officials about the lack of information about vaccinating health care workers like him who don’t treat COVID-19 patients but still face exposure risks.
“If you don’t know that we’re here, how do we know we’re going to get the vaccine?” Bowman said. “We’re certainly not intensive care units in emergency rooms, but we still have a significant potential exposure.”
He sent a letter to DHHS last week asking when his group would get the vaccine. They will now get it this week. He said he’s not sure if the letter was what allowed them to get on the schedule, but he’s very concerned about doctors in other parts of the state getting missed.
“It was not completely transparent, not clear where we needed to go and how we needed to do it,” he said. “It has very much felt like we’re in individual silos and we have to kind of fend for ourselves to take care of our staff so that we can stay here and be open during this time.”
After weeks of waiting, Dr. Beverly Edwards, a pediatrician in Ahoskie, finally got through to the Hertford County Health Department to schedule vaccines for herself and her office staff.
“We’ve been calling, us and the other peds offices have been calling them every day because we know that they’ve had the vaccine for at least two to three weeks,” Edwards said. “They were supposed to have a plan to give us the shot before everybody else, but they really haven’t come up with that plan yet.”
After Phase 1b, adults at high risk for exposure or increased risk of severe illness will get vaccinated in Phase 2. That includes people 65 to 74 and those younger than 65 who have a medical condition that increases the risk of severe disease from COVID-19. Other essential workers and people who live or work in care facilities also are in Phase 2.
In Phase 3, college, university and high school students 16 or older can get vaccinated. Phase 4 is open to anyone else who wants to be vaccinated.
Cohen said it will be months before vaccines are widely available to the public.
Coronavirus spiking in North Carolina
North Carolina has seen another spike in coronavirus cases, with the first two days of 2021 showing 19,000 new cases statewide.
Another 5,187 infections were reported Monday, when the state set a record with 16.5 percent of virus tests positive. State officials have set a target of 5 percent or lower for that metric.
Over the last week, the state has averaged 7,056 new cases per day, the first time during the pandemic the figure has topped 7,000.
North Carolina also set its third straight daily record Monday of people in hospitals with COVID-19, at 3,635. Hospitals are at 74 percent capacity, and only 17 percent of intensive care beds are available.
Wake County has set up new sites to help with the demand for coronavirus tests, and some patients are getting results back in hours. Appointments are not needed.
Testing sites open Monday include:
- Marsh Creek Park, 3050 N. New Hope Road in Raleigh, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Roberts Park, 1300 E. Martin St. in Raleigh, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Method Community Park, 514 Method Road in Raleigh, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
WRAL reporters Kasey Cunningham and Nia Harden contributed ot this report.