NEW HANOVER COUNTY — With New Hanover County deep into the process of vaccinating people 65 and older, officials are proactively reaching out to minority residents, going beyond the call-center system that schedules the bulk of vaccine appointments.
“We began immediately when we noticed that the number of minorities in that 75-and-older group were not getting through on our phone lines,” Linda Thompson, chief diversity and equity officer for New Hanover County, said.
Since then, vaccine eligibility has expanded. Thompson said more than 600 people have been vaccinated through events organized alongside minority-community leaders. More than 400 were vaccinated at an event at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church last week. Working with the Wilmington Housing Authority, the county set up a vaccination site at Solomon Towers apartments. Another event was held at Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church.
“We’ve reached out and said, ‘We’ve got to get our community, our minority community, vaccinated,’” Thompson said. “You’ll begin to see mass sites eventually throughout our county, to try to vaccinate a larger group of people, but we also understand that as we begin to change age groups, there are different dynamics there.”
New Hanover Public Health has vaccinated over 10,000 people so far. New Hanover Regional Medical Center predicted serving at least 20,000 vaccinations by the end of January. Novant Health — set to formally acquire NHRMC on Feb. 1 — has performed more than 51,000 vaccinations.
The vast majority of shots coming from public health have been scheduled by phone, though soon the county will launch a supplementary online scheduling system. Amanda Boomershine, a UNCW professor and co-leader of the university’s Latino Alliance, fears adding the extra internet-based option creates a potential for roadblocking some citizens like those without internet access or an email address.
“For the community I work with most, I think there would be a concern around only using that internet-based form or prioritizing the use of internet based forms for registration,” she said. “I think for some people, and for the Latinx people maybe the majority, they might continue to do a phone line.”
Further, there are concerns that technical problems with a new online system could cause delays.
County manager Chris Coudriet expressed that thinking in an email to the board of commissioners: “We are advancing an online registration portal but I’ve asked to hold back until we have certainty in its performance.”
Coudriet said he wanted to avoid launching a system that could crash with increased volume.
“I recognize we are ripe for criticism on this front but we’d be smashed too, I think, if we went live on a system (that) we can’t sustain. One system or another will crowd out potential users,” Coudriet wrote. “The phone, while old technology, is the most equitable way to get the population registered right now.”
Thompson said once the online portal launches, the county will continue to offer appointments by phone for those who need or prefer that option.
“We’ve got a lot of minorities who live in our community who don’t have the benefit of having this technology, so they may not hear about registration opening up in the county until the evening news comes on, or until the next day,” she said. “By the time they’ve gotten access, everybody’s filled up the slots.”
She added, “New Hanover County has taken the philosophy that we’re going to make sure that both areas are still accessible to those communities.”
When the county began reaching out to minority populations by establishing on-the-ground relationships with community organizations, the information gathering process for the Hispanic community was initially slower than it was for others, but has since ramped up, Thompson said.
Boomershine added that cultural understanding and Spanish-speaking resources are crucial for establishing trust with the county’s Hispanic community. There are two members of the county’s call center who speak Spanish, and callers can opt to connect with them when calling for a vaccine appointment.
The number of Spanish-speaking callers has increased in recent weeks, according to internal county emails. The Hispanic or Latino Origin population in New Hanover County accounts for 5.3% of its total 216,000 residents, according to government data from 2016. White residents made up 81% of the total population and of county residents and Black residents account for 14.1%. The N.C. report said Spanish is the primary language spoken at home for 4.6% of the New Hanover population.
“I think that is probably the biggest challenge so far, around vaccination, with both the county and the hospital, is the lack of Spanish-speaking staff and the lack of understanding of the language needs of the Spanish-speaking community,” she said.
Thompson said while there can never be too many interpreters working on the vaccination effort, “I do think we have the amount of interpreters that we need right now.”
Boomershine said the two demographics of the population currently eligible to receive a shot — healthcare workers and individuals 65 and over — involve a relatively small Hispanic population. The next phase of the state’s vaccination plan, frontline and essential societal workers, will amount to “the majority of the Latinx community in this region of the state,” she said.
“I’m uncertain as to whether the county and the hospital will be prepared to provide equitable access to the vaccine when that phase opens up,” she said.
The county has no timeline for moving into Group 3 of the state’s plan. Thousands more in the 65-and-older group are still seeking shots. Thompson said the county is looking ahead to how the eligibility expansion will affect operations.
“It’s never too early because we are constantly communicating and talking about that age group of 40 and under,” she said. “That’s the age group we are really going to try hard to educate about the vaccine.”
More variables come with a wider population, she said. Adjustments must be made to accommodate single parents, who may need to bring their children to the vaccination site, or workers with schedules that preclude them from receiving a dose during standard hours.
“This has been a monumental task,” Thompson said. “I learned that when you have something such as this vaccine, which can save millions of lives, that it becomes like gold to people. I’ve learned that if the government continues to operate efficiently and effectively, the way New Hanover County does, we can keep our community calm, and we can get them vaccinated and keep them as safe as possible.”
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