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.