With just 100 doses of vaccine available Jan. 6 to help fight the spread of COVID-19, it took only 10 minutes for officials in Brunswick County to see their weekly supply exhausted as more than 6,000 phone calls poured in to the public health department.
The meager supply and strong public interest left those responsible for administering the vaccine wondering how long it would take for future allotments to keep up with demand in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, and one that has become increasingly popular to retirees.
Of the county’s nearly 143,000 residents, more than 15,000 are 75 or older and another 31,000 are between 65 and 74, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
On Jan. 8, disturbed by the poor start to the state’s four-phase vaccination program, Brunswick County Board of Commissioners chair Randy Thompson dashed off a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper.
Phase 1 of the program began in December and covered healthcare workers and the staff and residents of long-term care facilities. It recently added individuals 75 or older, with frontline essential workers next in line.
“Since the recent transition to Phase 1b Group 1, several leaders and members of our communities have reached out to the commissioners with concerns that Brunswick County is not receiving enough vaccines from the state to adequately address our senior population while also continuing to vaccinate members of Phase 1a,” Thompson wrote.
“We are concerned not only because these are our residents most at risk of dying from this cruel disease (78 have already passed away to date sadly—most aged 65 or older), but also because a slower vaccination of this critical phase in our county might set us back from moving forward into Phase 1b Group 2 (frontline essential workers) in a timely manner consistent with the rest of the state.”
On Tuesday, Thompson got some unexpected news when the Trump administration announced a change in vaccination distribution, calling on states to immediately make eligible to receive shots those 65 and older and those under 65 whose underlying health conditions make them more vulnerable to succumbing to COVID-19. In two weeks, states are expected to receive allocations of vaccine based, in part, on the size of their 65-and-over population, the announcement said.
At an afternoon news conference, Cooper was noncommittal on what North Carolina’s reaction to the new federal guidelines might be.
“One of the continuing problems that we have had with the federal government is that they have continued to shift their advice on what the priorities for vaccine should be,” Cooper said.
“We haven’t even seen them in writing yet,” N.C. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen said of the new guidelines, adding that she and an advisory committee will review them before the state makes a decision on what to do.
While the new guidelines could, on paper, offer comfort to the many seniors who live in Brunswick County, Thompson said that as a practical matter the change makes little difference.
“I’ve got more people volunteering to give vaccinations and then I’ve got more people asking for the vaccines than I have vaccine. They can make whatever the criteria is for whatever they want to, but until they address the allocation and get the allocation in here we’re not going to be able to do anything any different for that age group than we’re having to do for the current age group.”
In another change announced Tuesday, federal officials said they would begin drawing down from the stockpile of vaccine being held for use as required second doses in order to expand the supply of initial doses. Thompson had no immediate opinion on what impact that move might have on those in the county who are awaiting their second dose.
The latest data posted on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that Brunswick County has administered 1,576 first doses. Of that group, 339 have received second doses.
According to Thompson, this week’s allocation of vaccine provides 500 doses to the county, 500 to Dosher Memorial Hospital and 500 to Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center, the latter for second doses.
The county will utilize a mass vaccination site on the campus of Brunswick Community College as it progresses through all four phases of the vaccination campaign, Thompson said.
In addition to college staff, partners working at the campus clinic include representatives of the public health department, county emergency services, nurses not currently being utilized by the county school system and staff from Dosher Memorial Hospital who are now vaccinating healthcare workers at their own facility but who will move to the campus when that assignment is completed.
The county also has a mobile freezer onsite that stores the highly perishable vaccine produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and used by Novant Health.
“It has been stressed that we need to get the vaccinations in the arms of our residents as soon as possible,” Thompson told the governor in his letter. “We stand united with our community partners, ready and hopeful to receive more vaccines and do just that.”