State tries to rein in unwieldy vaccine process; New Hanover defends shots for ineligible commissioners

At a Wednesday afternoon news briefing in Raleigh, Gov. Roy Cooper said 99.8% of the Covid-19 vaccine allocated to the state for first doses has been administered. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Governor Roy Cooper)

Noting that Covid-19 still is raging through North Carolina communities, Gov. Roy Cooper said Wednesday his priority is getting vaccinations to the people as quickly and equitably as possible. But with numerous hospitals and 100 separate county health departments doing the groundwork, and the vaccine in short supply, that is proving a monumental and sometimes controversial task.

At a Wednesday afternoon news briefing, Cooper said 99.8% of the vaccine allocated to the state for first doses has been administered. The governor urged patience as county health departments work through the state’s plan, which currently limits vaccines to health-care workers and anyone over 65.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, North Carolina’s top health official, said she still is urging local providers to follow the state’s guidelines. Both Cohen, who is secretary of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and Cooper acknowledged the situation on the ground might require a different strategy. They seemed reluctant to say counties were absolutely required to follow the state’s guidance on which groups are eligible. 


As news outlets across the state have reported ineligible people receiving the vaccine, Cooper said the bottom line was that shots were getting in arms. He added, however, that straying from the priority list should be rare. 

Last Friday schools let out early in Jackson County, in western North Carolina, so teachers could be vaccinated. An official with the school district said a local hospital notified it on Wednesday of 350 doses that had to be to used by the end of the week. That was enough to vaccinate all school district employees who said they would be willing to get the vaccine.

It was not clear why so many extra doses were available.

Jumping to the head of the line has become an issue in Wilmington after WHQR News reported that all five New Hanover County Commissioners were vaccinated after the board’s Jan. 13 agenda-review meeting. At the time, the state and county were offering vaccines to those 75 and older. That changed to 65 and older the day after the meeting.

Under the 65-and-older criteria, commissioners Bill Rivenbark and Rob Zapple would have been eligible, WHQR reported. Deb Hays, Jonathan Barfield Jr., and Julia Olson-Boseman were ineligible.

Jessica Loeper, chief communications officer for New Hanover County, told Port City Daily on Wednesday the vaccinations were approved by County Manager Chris Coudriet after extra doses needed to be used. Loeper said public health ultimately determines how the vaccine is distributed.

As to why the county doesn’t call people already in the queue to get vaccinated early when leftover doses are available boils down to staffing. “It isn’t feasible for staff to start going through that list when they already have appointments that week,” the county spokesperson said. She also confirmed public health does not have a waiting list for the public to get leftover doses.

“Because of [the commissioners’] important role in securing the health and safety of the county’s residents and the need to ensure continuity of governance for the county, they were extended the offer to be vaccinated when additional doses were remaining at the end of the day,” Loeper said.

To her knowledge, no other elected officials, school employees or 911 Center staff have been offered the vaccine. Though Loeper clarified some law enforcement officers received the shot ahead of their assigned group because they were at a vaccination location that had leftover doses. 

Extra doses of the vaccine have been reported in both Pfizer and Moderna vials. As well, Loeper said some leftovers can be attributed to appointment no-shows.

“If additional doses remain, Public Health does not let a single dose go to waste,” Loeper said. “(They) work to ensure any extra doses are given to people who are eligible and, in some cases depending on the situation, provides them to people who are willing and readily available.”

Loeper said the process is directly in line with the guidance provided by NCDHHS.

With local providers scrambling to meet the high demand and the public growing impatient and confused about the process, two state health associations took aim at the governor over the state allocating most doses this week for mass-vaccination events. The move left some hospitals and counties without the number they had been told they would receive.

In separate letters, the N.C. Healthcare Association and N.C. Association of Local Health Directors called for more transparency and a more cohesive plan.

“When every week is a surprise, it’s hard to plan if you have all the resources and the people that are distributing the shots,” wrote Steven Lawler, president of the N.C. Healthcare Association.

At the press conference, Cooper also extended executive orders, including the modified stay-at-home order through Feb. 28, to-go alcohol sales for bars and restaurants, as well as assistance that would allow folks facing eviction to stay in their homes.


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