Thousands call for appointments to get the COVID-19 vaccine in Burke County every day. Only 1,000 get it each week.
By Friday, Burke County was out of vaccine for the public, Burke County Health Department Director Rebecca McLeod said.
Supply of the COVID-19 vaccine has been limited in Burke and across North Carolina. There are only so many appointments available, and it’s frustrating for health-care providers and the public, McLeod said.
“We’ve had a mass vaccination plan in place for 15 to 20 years, which we exercise, but if you don’t have the vaccine to give people, it doesn’t work the way it should,” she said. “Has it made people lose trust in us and has it made people mad at us? Yes, and I’m sorry.”
Health departments and hospitals across North Carolina have ramped up their COVID-19 vaccine distribution in recent weeks, but a limited supply of doses has exasperated the public and turned scheduling into a nightmare.
Vaccine distribution started slow in North Carolina. In the last week of December, about 47,000 people were vaccinated in seven days. The next week, the number more than doubled to 100,172 people vaccinated.
As of Wednesday, more than half of the 1.1 million doses received by the state remained unused.
The state has urged counties to use their vaccine supply as quickly as they can. That push to use all doses poses challenges for every county.
Alexander and Caldwell counties both depleted their supply of the COVID-19 vaccine this week, for the first time since distribution began in December.
With no supply, the Caldwell County Health Department had to reschedule appointments for first-dose vaccinations until February, according to a press release from the county. They don't know when more supply will arrive.
“Last week when the state dropped the age for people in the current vaccination phase from 75 to 65, health departments were told to deplete their vaccine supplies,” Caldwell County Health Department Director Anna Martin said. “We depleted our supply, and we do not know when we will receive our next shipment.”
Alexander County planned to schedule appointments based on the shipments they’re promised each week by the state. On Friday, they were among several distributors that learned no new shipments would arrive in the coming week.
“I’m very anxious right now because we’ll be out,” said Leeanne Whisnant, Alexander County’s consolidated human services director, who oversees the health department. “People are not really happy to hear that, when you say, ‘Sorry, I’m waiting for more doses.’”
Health departments are informed at the end of the week how much vaccine they will receive in the coming week. The timing makes it difficult to schedule appointments, Rockingham County Public Health Director Trey Wright said. On Friday, the health department and local hospitals also learned they would not get any vaccine doses next week. The vaccine appointments scheduled based on promised doses have to be rescheduled.
Appointments were limited as it is. Once appointments opened to the older population, the public clogged phone lines. Counties across the state have encountered similar problems.
Rockingham County is not booking more appointments until it knows its supply, Wright said. Once they do and appointments open, the slots are filled within an hour.
In Burke County, the health department and hospital make appointments and hope the promised shipments will arrive.
“The hard part in scheduling is you’re going on faith that you’re getting vaccine,” McLeod said.
Even larger counties, such as Guilford County with a population of more than 500,000, face challenges due to the lack of notice on vaccine shipment sizes, Guilford County Health Department Director Dr. Iulia Vann said in a press conference.
Guilford has received 6,800 doses so far at the county health department.
“The allocation of the COVID-19 vaccine is definitely a challenge because it is a weekly cycle,” Vann said. “... The planning has to be very detailed and very specific in order for us to move the doses as fast as possible, but with a very short period of time.”
The goal for the counties, despite the difficulties, is to get the vaccine out as quickly as possible, Catawba County Public Health Director Jennifer McCracken said.
“The vaccine is coming in slowly but we are giving it just as quick as it comes in to us at public health,” McCracken said.
Similar problems, different methods
The Rockingham County Health Department held its first drive-through vaccination clinic on Jan. 12. In the span of nine hours, 600 people who were 75 and older were vaccinated. Some waited four hours to get their shot.
On Jan. 21, the county started vaccinating people over 65. That announcement led to a rush of calls. The county can’t open appointments until more vaccine comes in.
At least 2,644 doses had been administered to county residents as of Thursday.
Burke County waited longer than most to vaccinate people 75 and older, a frustrating situation for the public, McLeod said.
“The demand way exceeds the supply,” she said. “It’s been chaos getting people scheduled.”
Burke health officials partnered with the local hospital, Carolinas HealthCare System Blue Ridge, to distribute the vaccine.
Together, the entities run a community vaccination clinic using hospital and county staff. They also opened a phone line to handle the increased call volume.
On Fridays, the clinic vaccinates about 1,000 people. On Monday, they start taking appointments again.
At least 4,086 doses had been administered to Burke residents as of Thursday, according to the state.
The Caldwell County Health Department recently increased its capacity to vaccinate in an attempt to meet the demand. The county health department went from vaccinating about 120 people a day to 300 to 400 a day just in the last week, director Martin said.
Despite the effort, Caldwell has a growing demand that can’t be met. There are 8,000 people on a waiting list to get the vaccine. The list only grows now that the county depleted its supply.
Caldwell UNC Healthcare, the local hospital, has also ramped up to vaccinate 500 people a day.
Caldwell UNC Healthcare CEO Laura Easton hopes to see at least half of Caldwell County’s population vaccinated by June. At 500 vaccinations a day, the hospital is on track to help with half of that, Easton said.
To do 500 vaccinations a day, the hospital had to pull staff from satellite offices and enlist the full force of the hospital. Now, it’s a well-oiled machine, Easton said.
As of Thursday, 5,900 vaccine doses had been administered to Caldwell County residents.
In Alexander County, the health department is the only vaccine provider to the public. Since they are a small department, they brought on help from other county agencies to ramp up vaccinations, Whisnant said.
The department grew to be able to administer about 200 to 300 vaccines a day. Then they ran out. As of Friday, Alexander County had exhausted the health department’s first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The state reports 1,739 doses had been administered to Alexander County residents as of Thursday.
The Guilford County Health Department has expanded its vaccination process to administer about 1,800 doses a day, Vann said. The county plans to increase that, as much as supply allows.
The county is working closely with Cone Health, a health-care system in Greensboro, to get the vaccine out. The health-care system is transferring vaccine to the health department to get the doses into the community as quickly as possible, Vann said.
At Cone Health, they hit the ground running. The first week they got the vaccine, Cone Health vaccinated 500 employees a day, said Dr. DeAnne Brooks, chief pharmacy officer at Cone Health.
The greatest challenges have been pivoting quickly, depending on new information from the state, she said.
“We have really increased our pace and capacity to put more shots in arms over the last couple of weeks. It’s been going really well in a structured and organized fashion,” Brooks said.
In total, at least 20,163 vaccine doses have been administered to Guilford County residents.
Close relationships with local hospitals have been crucial in Catawba County, McCracken said.
A new online vaccine sign-up allows Catawba County Public Health to work with two local hospitals, Catawba Valley Health System and Frye Regional Medical Center, to share vaccine appointments, McCracken said. About 40 percent of those doses had been administered as of Tuesday.
When more vaccine comes in, Catawba County Public Health is ready. They have trained staff across the department to be able to step in to expand the county’s vaccination capacity when the time comes.
As of Thursday, 9,309 doses had been administered to county residents.
Despite a limited supply, Catawba County is vaccinating 720 people per day, McCracken said. She said the staff is motivated by the hope the vaccine brings for her community.
“It’s the people. It’s the people who’ve been quarantined in their house, who’ve been doing all the right things, who haven't seen their grandchildren or their children or who haven’t gone to church or the normal places they go to,” McCracken said. “That’s what’s really important to me and to our staff. It’s how we can get vaccine to these people.”