Faced with a limited supply of vaccine doses to help eradicate a pandemic that knows no end and an ongoing hesitation on the part of some individuals to be vaccinated, leaders in government, business, higher education and neighborhoods are starting to roll out plans to convince as many people as possible to get inoculated once supplies become more plentiful.
Where once federal officials said 60% to 70% of the U.S. population needed to develop resistance to COVID-19 to eradicate it, the country’s go-to guru on the virus, Anthony Fauci, has now raised the bar for “herd immunity” to 80%.
Fauci’s stretch goal comes as surveys show a large percentage of Americans are either on the fence about taking a jab or are unwilling to do so.
In a November survey of 12,648 adults by Pew Research Center, only 61% of white respondents and just 42% of Black respondents said they would “definitely or probably” get vaccinated. About 18% of the survey group said they wanted more information before making a final decision.
Along with a slow start in inoculations, the gap between public need and public acceptance places added pressure on civic leaders to convince people to get vaccinated.
The first shipments of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines arrived in New Hanover County in December. Vaccination will be accomplished in five phases and is expected to take at least nine months, said Phillip Tarte, the county’s public health director.
The federal government ships vaccines to states each week, with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services determining the quantities received at the local level as the agency helps localities address any staff shortages or data entry issues.
To move things along, Brig. Gen. Jeff Copeland said the N.C. National Guard is dispatching “immunization strike teams” to “large metropolitan areas where requested” and smaller rural counties. Working with health providers, team members inject patients, record their data and handle logistics.
COVID-19 vaccines are being made available at no cost to all North Carolinians, regardless of insurance.
In early January, New Hanover County and Brunswick County began offering vaccines to anyone 75 or older – the first group in Phase 1b of the rollout – while continuing to provide doses to staff and residents at long-term care facilities and to health care workers.
Announcing the move to 1b, Brunswick HHS director David Stanley cited “the small number of vaccines available” in urging those who might not get an appointment to keep trying. Subsequent groups to be served include additional health care workers and frontline essential workers such as police officers, manufacturing and grocery store employees, teachers and child care staff.
With the bar set high for achieving herd immunity, government and community leaders, individually or as partners, are devising campaigns to maximize the number of people who show up for shots.
Businesses are also considering the exact role they want to play.
On Dec. 16, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission updated its guidance on COVID-19, clearing the way for company-mandated vaccinations.
Employers can now require employees to be vaccinated as a condition of remaining in the workplace. But management must consider reasonable accommodations for individuals with “sincerely held” religious beliefs or medical conditions that would make the vaccine contraindicated. Accommodations could include having affected employees work remotely or placing them in an on-site space less threatening to coworkers.
Dalton Green, a partner at the Wilmington law firm of Hedrick Gardner, said she’s received calls from area manufacturers about how management might handle the vaccination issue.
“This is uncharted territory, but everything we have right now even from the EEOC is saying it’s OK to mandate as long as you take the protected exceptions into account,” Green said. For employers, “I think it’s more of a concern about employees just not being on board, employee backlash and rocking the boat in that sense.”
A survey of 500 businesses conducted by Capital Associated Industries, a Raleigh-based human resources and management services firm, showed that only 5% supported a mandatory approach to vaccination.
“What we’re hearing is that most employers will strongly encourage it but will not mandate that in order to work at their location that they have to have the vaccine,” said Molly Hegeman, CAI’s chief strategy officer. Businesses will continue to focus on the “3Ws” – wear a mask, watch your distance, wash your hands – as they discuss safety with employees, she said.
At the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Chancellor Jose Sartarelli pledged to work with county health officials to “facilitate and strongly encourage” the vaccination of students, faculty and staff.
“Our campus has served as a vaccination site in the past, and our campus health experts are ready to provide that service again,” Sartarelli said in a statement. Inoculation of most students will occur during Phase 5. A record 17,915 students were enrolled at UNCW last fall.
Cape Fear Community College is also encouraging its students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated and will assist New Hanover and Pender counties in promoting their vaccination programs.
As vaccine supplies start becoming more predictable, leaders of community organizations will step up their efforts to ensure that individuals in historically underserved neighborhoods are not left behind.
Educate and Protect
In New Hanover County, the NAACP has spent months trying to “support people, protect people and educate people,” said Deborah Maxwell, the group’s district president, including distributing “thousands” of masks to both adults and children.
“We had McDonald’s coupons. If we saw a kid with a mask on, we gave him a coupon” while encouraging mask-free kids to don one, she said.
Now, Maxwell is working with the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County to identify locations in largely Black neighborhoods where sizeable numbers of people can be inoculated without worrying about transportation. She counts the MLK Center on Eighth Street in Wilmington, gymnasiums and houses of worship as potential sites.
With only four in 10 Black adults telling pollsters they will definitely or probably get vaccinated, Maxwell said it’s incumbent on civic leaders to persuade reluctant individuals to show up for a shot. Black people are 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19 and 2.8 times more likely to die from it than white non-Hispanic people, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thousands of Black and Latino people took part in Pfizer’s and Moderna’s Phase 3 clinical trials, Maxwell and health officials are telling the undecided.
Outreach to Latino residents will be done in part by using written and oral translations and through Facebook.
“It’s going to be a long time before we reach herd immunity status and for people that are vaccinated the better it will be to reach that moment, especially in congregate areas like public housing, apartment complexes, people who are essential workers coming in direct contact,” the NAACP leader said of the anti-virus campaign.
On Jan. 12, 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.