Forget 20 Questions — the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners barraged county health officials with over twice as many queries during a Jan. 12 special meeting. Every one of those questions concerned the rollout of the county’s COVID-19 vaccination effort, which has been marked by slow distribution and community frustration since its start on Dec. 21.
The answers, delivered primarily by emergency preparedness director Fletcher Tove and public health director Stacie Saunders, described a process that is ramping up quickly but remains challenged by both technical difficulties and limited numbers of vaccines. The two again asked for patience and emphasized that Buncombe likely won’t achieve widespread vaccination for many months.
“We recognize that it’s not a perfect system and the demand is quite high,” Saunders said. “We just want to reiterate that we will not have sufficient supply of vaccine for a very long time, so it is likely that we will still hear frustration and concerns about being able to get an appointment.”
Several commissioner questions focused on the appointment system itself. In response to reports of long phone queues for those attempting to schedule their vaccination, Saunders said Buncombe had surged its call center staffing to 18 and requested 20 additional contract employees to work the lines. She also acknowledged that an online appointment system had been quickly built on software that was “not robust and not intended for the function,” leading to multiple bugs, and that the county would switch to a new platform next week.
Commission Chair Brownie Newman suggested that further changes were needed, pointing out that many of those calling in or trying to schedule appointments online each week wouldn’t succeed due to the county’s sparse vaccine supplies. “For most people, it’ll be this experience of every single week trying to do this again, and only a small fraction of the people will successfully get the appointment” he said. “Requiring people to go through that process week after week after week and being unsuccessful is obviously going to be really frustrating for folks.”
Newman floated the idea of a waitlist or preregistration, similar to systems in place for Haywood and Jackson counties, that would reduce uncertainty for residents seeking the vaccine. Saunders said such a queue would create a massive backlog, resulting in an unmanageable “logistical burden” for staff members already handling a complicated vaccine rollout. For now, residents can sign up to be notified when new vaccination appointments are available by texting BCALERT to 888777 or joining a county email list.
Starting next week, Buncombe will be able to vaccinate roughly 4,000 people each week from its fixed site at A-B Tech, up from an initial capacity of fewer than 2,000. However, how many shots are actually administered depends on the county’s allotments from North Carolina state officials, currently the only source of the vaccines. Fewer than 1,500 doses were delivered for the week beginning Jan. 11, with fewer than 1,000 delivered each of the previous two weeks.
Buncombe is aiming for 70% of the county’s roughly 261,000 residents, or about 183,000 people, to have received both doses of a coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2021, a level considered a lower threshold for herd immunity. “This is already a lofty goal for us,” noted Tove; at the county’s current capacity of 4,000 doses per week, reaching 70% vaccine uptake wouldn’t occur until October 2022.
As state allotments hopefully increase, Tove continued, the county could add a second in-person vaccination site at the old Sears location near the Asheville Mall, as well as drive-thru sites similar to those used for COVID-19 testing. Community medical providers could also distribute vaccines after being approved for that role by the state, a process just now getting underway.
The full COVID-19 presentation from the Jan. 12 meeting is available here.