Buncombe preps new systems for vaccine rollout

A-B Tech COVID-19 vaccination site
STEP IN LINE: The county's A-B Tech vaccination site, shown here, will soon be supplemented by a drive-thru location at A.C. Reynolds High School. Photo by Molly Horak

As Buncombe County continues to grapple with distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, its leaders are taking a cue from the paragon of American logistical efficiency: the fast-food drive-thru.

“Everybody’s familiar with the Chick-fil-A lines and how they move,” explained Van Taylor Jones, the county’s emergency services director, during a Jan. 19 presentation to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. “We’re looking to set up that kind of model that will move people through fast.”

The drive-thru site at A.C. Reynolds High School, which will distribute the required second vaccine dose to people who have already received a first shot starting Monday, Jan. 25, was among several efforts announced on Jan. 19. The county has also developed a waitlist that allows residents to pre-register for a vaccine and be scheduled for an appointment at a later time by county health staff.

The new system marks an about-face for Public Health Director Stacie Saunders, who had opposed the waitlist model during a Jan. 12 special meeting due to its logistical demands on her already burdened employees. But the county’s previous approach, which required residents to schedule appointments directly as vaccines became available, drew criticism for creating long phone queues and online technical difficulties.

‘“We have heard our community — we have heard our leaders — that scheduling is not the easiest thing in the world with limited doses,” Saunders acknowledged at a Jan. 19 briefing to the commissioners.

The system launched the morning of Jan. 21; less than an hour after launch, according to the county’s Twitter account, 10,000 people had signed on. Health care workers and those age 65 or older can continue to join the waitlist by calling 828-250-5000 or visiting buncombeready.org.

Fletcher Tove, Buncombe’s emergency preparedness director, cautioned residents not to expect a quick appointment upon joining the list. Based on current allotments of vaccines from the state, he said, shots may be scheduled as far out as April. “I just want to make sure you guys are aware there’s going to be some consternation from that,” he added to the commissioners.

Saunders and Tove noted that Buncombe has been working to secure more vaccine doses for the community beyond its regular state allotment. HCA Healthcare, the parent company of Mission Hospital, has agreed to give the county 975 doses that had previously been reserved for its employees and is in talks for further allocations.

And 500 extra doses have come from the WNC Regional Collaborative, a joint organization of county health departments, community health centers and hospitals. Saunders explained that those shots had been redirected by state officials from a federal program meant to vaccinate residents and workers at long-term care facilities through partnerships with Walgreens and CVS. As of mid-January, she said, those pharmacies in North Carolina had received 169,000 doses but had only deployed about 40,000, so they did not need further supplies.

Even with those additional vaccines, Tove said, the county remains well below its capacity for distribution. After the Reynolds drive-thru site for second doses becomes operational, Buncombe’s main site at A-B Tech will be able to administer the first vaccine dose to roughly 1,000 people each day.

The full COVID-19 presentation from the Jan. 19 commissioners’ briefing is available here.

Updated at 1:50 p.m. on Jan. 21 to reflect the opening of the Buncombe County vaccination waitlist.

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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10 thoughts on “Buncombe preps new systems for vaccine rollout

  1. indy499

    Smaller nearby counties are far ahead of Buncombe. We continue to plan and take inefficient paths so as to not place “demands on our already over-burdened employees”. Give me a break. There’s a war on.

    Yep the vaccine arrives frozen and needs to stay that way until mixed. You need to mix what you’re going to use. You need to have folks wanting to be vaccinated organized. Doesn’t sound especially challenging unless you spent your entire career at the public trough.

    NC is near the bottom, if not dead last, in the ratio of vaccines distributed to a state that are actually in people’s arms. And within that dreadful statistic, Buncombe is somehow decisively pulling NC’s stats down. Almost sounds impossible.

    Maybe the city and county councils can put out some more proclamations on things they know nothing about and weren’t elected to deal with, instead of directing that this essential job get done.

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  2. Michael Schneider

    I too am puzzled by the slow pace of inoculation here. Is it that the County is not receiving its proportionate share of the vaccine as compared to other locales? Does the County receive only a portion of our area’s allotment with pharmacies, physicians and other entities also receiving the vaccine?

    While admittedly anecdotal, up in Chicago, with a vastly larger over 65 population to serve, my +65 family members and their friends are all getting appointments only three to five days out at Walgreens. I know people here in town, driving to Georgia, appointment in hand, to receive their shot at pharmacies. Here, by comparison, we seem slow to administer even to our own residence. I’m not seeing a system of distribution here (or elsewhere for that matter), that is clear or equitable. Is there no one in charge of monitoring and distributing all the vaccine that comes into the County? I don’t get these anomalies. Can anyone out there with knowledge explain this for me.

    • Hi Michael, thanks much for reading. I think the slowness isn’t tied to one single factor, but the primary issue right now is the limited supplies being sent to the county health department and other public-facing entities. As of 1/19/20, the county itself had received just 3,947 doses of vaccine directly from the state.

      The state has sent more doses to Buncombe through Mission Hospital and the federal program administered by Walgreens/CVS. However, as far as I’m aware, county officials have no access to a central database showing who has gotten what, and neither Mission nor the pharmacies have disclosed exact details about their allotments and distribution progress. As noted in the story, the pharmacy program in particular appears to be going very slowly in North Carolina.

  3. indy499

    Daniel, does it seem likely that Henderson and little Transylvania counties received more vaccine than Buncombe? Both have put more vaccine in arms than Buncombe Co health. I truly doubt the answer you were given by Buncombe.

    If it were true, aren’t the follow up questions why did we get so little vaccine compared to our neighbrs and what are you doing about it?

    You quoted Ms Saunders concern for her over burdened employees. My $ would bet that has a lot more to do with our lousy performance than getting less vaccine than our neighbors.

  4. G Man

    This system seems very oppressive.

    How are people who have no valid ID supposed to prove eligibility?
    How do people with limited mobility get to the “fast food style” vaccination sites?
    How can we possibly expect everyone to make phone calls to make direct appointments for vaccination times?

    Do people really only have these problems when it comes time to vote?

    • No ID is required to be eligible for vaccination in Buncombe County. I believe the county is exploring partnerships with Dogwood Health Trust to provide solutions for mobility-limited residents, and the phone calls to schedule appointments will come from county health staff.

      • G Man

        So, the county health staff is calling the county health staff to schedule appointments (or pre-register) for folks over 65?

        • The county health staff is directly calling residents who have registered on the waitlist, which those residents can now do by phone or by email. Those calls will come when vaccine appointments become available, which as Fletcher Tove notes could not be until April for the currently eligible groups.

  5. Calling 828-250-5000 to get on the waitlist is an option. So is visiting buncombeready.org and clicking the “Join wait list” buttons at the top of the page.

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