“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.