PENDER COUNTY — According to Pender County officials, a discrepancy in the total Covid-19 case count — when comparing county data to state-level reports — arose from a backlog of case reports, compounded with the all-hands-on-deck vaccination effort consuming the county’s public health staff.
Health and human services director Carolyn Moser said a number of factors contributed to the low count on Pender County’s dashboard, which as of Monday night showed about 600 fewer confirmed cases than the state’s total for the county.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for alerting counties to instances of positive Covid-19 tests among individuals who may be county residents, Moser said. At that point, counties assume the responsibility to contact-trace the cases. Whenever any test is administered, regardless of whether it’s in a clinic or testing site, the DHHS obtains the results first, and pushes that information down to the counties.
“We have to go and make sure that they’re not a resident of another county, which happens frequently,” Moser said. “Two, we have to see whether or not it’s a duplicate.”
She added oftentimes the county is alerted to positive tests for which the quarantine and isolation time frame has already expired. With limited resources, the health department has to prioritize the most pressing cases, which can create a lag in the time it takes to enter data.
“We have to set those aside, and come back to them and get them entered into our database, but we have to react to those that are active cases with the potential of great exposure,” Moser said. “We don’t have enough staff to get those that are inactive cases put into our database.”
Nearly 150 cases of Covid-19 were added to the Pender County dashboard Tuesday. Later that evening, an additional 116 cases were added, bringing the cumulative total to 2,966, which includes 344 cases in the state’s Pender Correctional Institution. As of Tuesday evening, DHHS reported 3,331 total cases in Pender County.
The county was notified of many of those cases after the timeframe for contact-tracing had passed, Moser said.
A spokesperson for the DHHS said because its case-tracking software largely makes use of zip codes — with seven bordering counties, Pender has a few zip codes that overlap into other areas — it is possible for some cases to be attributed to counties other than the one where the Covid-19-positive individual lives. The spokesperson did not respond to an email asking follow-up questions.
All available vaccination time slots for residents 75 and older were booked quickly this week, and county officials held off on scheduling additional appointments until a new shipment of doses arrived. A 400-dose shipment arrived Tuesday, Moser said.
“So, naturally, we’re not going to schedule until we have doses in hand,” she said. “Typically we’ve been dividing that between Burgaw and Hampstead, and that will be our plan.”
Of the cities and towns within Pender County, Hampstead has the most confirmed Covid-19 cases with 1,004, while Burgaw is third with 462. (Rocky Point has 477 cases, the second most of areas within the county).
Moser acknowledged the difficulties in managing the immense supply chain but thinks her office could administer more shots if given the opportunity.
“Our nurses have been able to handle the number,” she said. “We gave over 400 vaccines last Thursday in Hampstead, and realized that we can vaccinate more than the 200 that we’re having to allocate to each site, if we only had vaccines.”
Pender County will not open the floodgates to later stages of the state’s vaccination plan until all residents within the current phase — people 75 and older in the general population — are given the opportunity for a shot.
“It can be pretty frustrating,” Moser said. “I’ve tried to encourage people to be patient, which is easier said than done.”
Like in New Hanover County, calls to the health department are clogging phone lines and leaving many residents with a busy signal. There are around 10 phone lines in Pender County dedicated to scheduling vaccination appointments, Moser said, and the county hopes to involve other employees in the effort or establish a call center to help facilitate appointments.
Many essential workers over the age of 50, as well as school staff and childcare providers, are soon to be up in the queue as the phases of the vaccination plan progress. Moser hopes the supply will be able to match the oncoming demand.
“This is going to be a population that really is wanting the vaccine,” she said. “It really doesn’t matter what group, what phase. If we don’t have the vaccine, we can’t do anything.”
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