Slow progress marks Buncombe vaccine rollout

Buncombe vaccination rollout
SHOT IN THE ARM: A firefighter receives a COVID-19 vaccine as part of the Buncombe County vaccination rollout. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County

“I sense the frustration in each of your questions and the exasperation behind your masks. I think the masks are probably a good thing for you right now,” quipped Dr. William Hathaway, Mission Health’s chief medical officer, during a Jan. 5 presentation on COVID-19 vaccination efforts to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

Hathaway’s facilities, Buncombe County Health & Human Services and national pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens have been responsible for the local distribution of coronavirus vaccines since they became available in mid-December. According to North Carolina state plans, only health care workers, first responders and long-term care facility residents will be able to receive the shot until Monday, Jan. 11.

Commissioners were thus eager to understand how and when others among their constituents could expect to be vaccinated. But Fletcher Tove, Buncombe’s emergency preparedness director, emphasized the need for patience. “People seem to think this vaccine solution is a problem for the spring, and it’s really not,” he explained. “This is going to be something we’re working on solving for the majority of 2021.”

Stacie Saunders, the county’s public health director, said the biggest bottleneck to rapid distribution lay with manufacturers, which are ramping up production after the December approvals of the vaccines by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Vaccine allotments for the county health department and local hospitals, she added, are determined at the state level, with no other options for sourcing the shots.

Even the limited vaccines that Buncombe has received so far, however, haven’t been fully deployed. Of the 1,675 doses allotted through Dec. 28, the county had given just over 1,000 doses through Jan. 4. Neither Saunders nor Tove explained why all of the vaccines hadn’t yet been given to eligible individuals.

Although Hathaway did not share an exact figure for how many doses the Mission Health system had received, he estimated the amount was “almost 10 times as much as the county.” Of those shots, he said about 3,700 had been administered to Mission employees across the 18 Western North Carolina counties the system serves.

Hathaway also did not directly address why Mission’s doses hadn’t been distributed more quickly. He did note that many health employees are “apprehensive and waiting to get [the vaccine],” an observation that mirrored Jan. 5 remarks made by Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s secretary of health and human services.

The third major avenue for distribution, federally funded vaccinations at long-term care facilities by CVS and Walgreens staff, remains a black box to county officials. “We don’t get too much more information about what that looks like, as far as how many they’ve done,” Saunders said.

Anecdotally, Saunders added, county communicable disease nurses have reported that some long-term care facilities have received their first doses. However, Tove said that Buncombe staffers had “already seen some hesitancy” when trying to vaccinate residents in the 90 county facilities not covered by the federal program.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, North Carolina had the 12th-lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate per capita as of Jan. 5. The state had reported 1,162 vaccinations per 100,000 residents; South Dakota, by comparison, led the country with 3,231 vaccinations per 100,000.

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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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14 thoughts on “Slow progress marks Buncombe vaccine rollout

  1. Robert Gunn

    Starting promptly at 8am this morning, 1/7, over seven hours ago, I have been unable to get through to our Buncombe County Health Department in order to schedule a Covid 19 vaccine appointment. At age 85 with COPD I am clearly in the next priority group for vaccination. Though Charter’s phone outage for the Health Department’s 250-5000 number is beyond Buncombe County’s control, an alternate number 419-0095 has been impossible to access. As critical as the Covid health issue has been for the past year, today Buncombe County has demonstrated a woeful lack of preparedness to take the next step forward in protecting our citizens. Why???

    Any “answers” are a moot point now. What we need is significant performance improvement – now and in the future.

    • C E Waldrop

      I am 83 years old with health issues and I also have tried to get through to the Health Dept using the “Thursday only” number,
      419-005, in an attempt to make an appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. I have left my telephone number for a return call which I hope will come in time to make an appointment for the beginning of shots for my age group on January 11.
      I remain hopeful.

  2. Richard B

    I fully agree with the comments above by Robert and C E.
    The allocation of vaccine for Buncombe County has been here for weeks, as is true throughout the State. The problem is the lack of planning by those individuals who mislead by claiming that it is the manufacturers who are the “bottleneck”. With the over 65 cohort of seniors accounting for 80% of COVID-19 deaths, it becomes obvious that preventing deaths is not the priority.
    So brazen for Ms. Saunders and her colleagues across the state, and much of the nation really, to not only refuse to acknowledge that there has been a delay in complying with the revised CDC recommendations to move 75 and over folks to Phase 1b, they lie about why that is so.
    Likely they did not develop plans over the past several months since the Administration announced the unprecedented Warp Speed Program and promised a vaccine by year’s end, because they refused to believe it would happen, perhaps with political and ideological factors involved. So here we are.
    I suggest our health administrators and leaders, starting with the Governor, take a look at how Colorado is getting those over 70 vaccinated now (they opted to modify the CDC guidelines to include 70 and over in Phase 1b, lowering the bar from 75).

  3. Richard B

    Here’s another comment on how Ms. Saunders and others are trying to distract from their failure to produce a plan for distribution of the vaccine to the Phase 1b recipients, those 75 and over.
    Here’s what I mean, as typified by Mr. Walton’s third to last paragraph of the article.
    {The third major avenue for distribution, federally funded vaccinations at long-term care facilities by CVS and Walgreens staff, remains a black box to county officials. “We don’t get too much more information about what that looks like, as far as how many they’ve done,” Saunders said.}
    The fact is that neither Ms. Saunders, nor any other Buncombe Health official, has to know anything about this “3rd avenue of distribution”. They are not involved. Thankfully, it is being planned and implemented by the Federal Government, in concert with two well run private organizations – CVS and Walgreens-, which will insure that the senior facilities’ residents and staff get the vaccinations in reasonable time. They can thank God that neither the state nor the counties are involved.
    Again, google in Summit County or Telluride County, etc., both in CO, and search for COVID distribution plan. I beg our Health officials to do so.
    THAT is how it is done.

    • As reported by Carolina Public Press on Jan. 5, there’s reason to be concerned that the federal program isn’t being handled in the most efficient manner. Per their story (https://carolinapublicpress.org/41178/nc-vaccinations-lag-despite-many-awaiting-turn-2-in-3-available-doses-unused/), the rate of doses administered per allotment lags behind both Buncombe and Mission, at least statewide:

      CVS and Walgreens report 13,338 doses have been administered to long-term care staff and residents in the state, leaving approximately 118,000 unadministered doses as of Jan. 4.

      • bsummers

        there’s reason to be concerned that the federal program isn’t being handled in the most efficient manner

        Really. How can that be? I’ve heard nothing but good things about the Trump administration.

        • WNC

          You must have heard Trump administration brings vaccine to fruition in record time, while naysayers are scratching their heads.
          I guess state and county governments are botching the process of administering doses for North Carolinians.

          • Old GOP Friend

            Here in Buncombe it’s phase zero, call in for appointment if you’re 75 or older. But you’ll never connect, not even with a robot. Same for the email address. This is what happens when lazy, sleazy Democrats run things.

            We got phantom vaccination phases and scoundrels pretending to run things, while they got their hands in the till, like Wanda Greene and family.

      • Richard B .

        Thanks for posting the link to the Carolina Public Press article. It appears to be a very well researched article, with relevant stats and info.
        Also shows that I may have been in error re the Walgreen and CVS distribution program to senior facilities being more efficient, and I will
        admit that I did not consult public data prior to making that assumption.
        I have provided below a link to the most recent (1-8-21) CDC demographic data which may be of interest to your readers. It provides cases and deaths
        by age and by race.
        There is a portion of the Carolina Public Press article concerning the Health Dept. Director in Montgomery County that is a bit troubling.

        Here is the section:
        {The Director, Mary Perez said getting information to high-priority groups can be difficult.
        “We realized that by them changing phase 1b to people 75 or older that we’re going to have a lot of people that don’t have email or even internet,” she said.
        “So, we’ve been spending a lot of time earlier on today trying to figure out how we were going to be able to reach those people.”}

        I hope she and her colleagues didn’t spend too much time coming up with ways to spread the word to the 75 and over folks who, she believes,
        do not have internet and email capability. I doubt, in today’s world, that there actually are “a lot of people” in this age group who are internet-less.
        Even if her assumption is somewhat correct, they certainly do have TV’s, radios, and maybe even get the local daily paper. Has she not heard of
        Public Announcements? Nearly every county and/or city has a Senior Center, managed by the Parks and Recreation Dept. Do you think collaboration
        with these folks might help get the word out? Jewish Community Centers are also found in most locales, and would be very effective in getting
        the word to the targeted seniors. Same with state wide church organizations of several faiths…announcements at services, etc. Can the NC Dept.
        of Revenue identify residents by age from their data bank? Could they not gear up to send out emails to those who file electronically in the over 75 cohort?
        In other words, the apparent lack of ingenuity and creativity by some of our bureaucrats is frustrating. People are dying. Get on a war footing.
        This is admittedly a HUGE logistics effort, and requires the kind of thinking and action that wins this war and decreases the death rates.
        Now is the time to really show leadership, not contribute to the growing anxiety by negative comments and why this or that cannot be done.
        Volunteer organizations are waiting to help in whatever way they can.
        The link to the CDC demographics will be sent separately. Should find it below.

  4. Richard B.

    One more comment. What’s wrong with the picture captioning Mr. Walton’s article? (Also want to thank Mr. Walton, and the Mountain Xpress staff for staying on top of this story, and courageously reporting the truth. I believe it may become one of the more interesting missteps of the COVID-19 pandemic story when an in depth retrospective is researched down the road).
    Back to the picture. Just a couple of questions….
    What are the odds of the 40 or 50 something firefighter dying if he contracts COVID vs a person 75 or older?
    Why aren’t there four more persons getting shots at the same time, being administered to by the four other staff persons standing around in the background?
    Perhaps I’m being unfair, and I will acknowledge that. All I know is that people are dying. People that make up only 6% of cases, but account for 80% of the deaths (those over 65).
    Anger sometimes causes us to perhaps ask unfair questions, or appear to be overly impatient.
    Yet the facts tell me that all is not well with the planning of the distribution thus far.
    Just want to add one more fact, that some readers may not be aware of. Vaccine supplies are here in our area, stored in
    freezers in hospitals. What we do not have is a plan to get those dying, today and every day, vaccinated.
    And it’s not just Buncombe County. It is Henderson as well, and perhaps most others in this state.

    • fender

      As of January 4, 2021 North Carolina ranked third-worst in the nation for Covid vaccines per capita. Tennessee had used 50% of its available vaccine, South Carolina had used 42% of its available vaccine, while North Carolina had used only 24% of its available vaccine. It is obvious North Carolina doesn’t have a coherent vaccination strategy other than to blame the manufacturers. The federal government isn’t going to release more vaccine with so much yet to be dispensed. At the current rate of vaccination has anyone figured how many years it is going to take to get everyone vaccinated? Just today Arizona announced they will be doing a 24 hour round the clock vaccination in their largest football stadium. It is past time for North Carolina to become creative on ways to get people vaccinated more quickly. This is a failure by state and local governments of epic proportions. And while our governments sit on their thumbs the death rate continues to spiral upwards.

  5. NIMBY

    When did the county close? March? They had 9 months to prepare for every scenario, including vaccine distribution. No excuse at this point.

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