WILMINGTON — As a federally qualified provider, MedNorth Health Center had an inside track on the U.S. government’s massive Covid-19 vaccination effort. As with states and other entities relying on the federal government for vaccine supplies, that inside track has been bumpy at times and hard to navigate.
The good news, according to MedNorth officials, is the process is improving at the clinic on North Fourth Street in Wilmington’s Brooklyn Arts District. Many of its established patients have been vaccinated, and MedNorth is moving headstrong into work at the very heart of its mission: providing primary health-care services in underserved areas, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay.
That mission (along with its location) puts MedNorth in a unique position to help New Hanover County fulfill one of its coronavirus-related goals of ensuring traditionally marginalized communities have equal access to the potentially life-saving vaccine.
As a federally qualified provider, MedNorth received early approval to administer the Covid-19 vaccines. Still, that status did nothing to alleviate the biggest issue hurdle — lack of supply. To date, MedNorth has given 950 vaccines.
As the federal government rolled out its strategy, the bulk of the supply was allocated to states, first based on population and other factors. States, in turn, gave doses to county health departments and hospitals. Even though clinics such as MedNorth were eligible to receive doses directly from state allotments, that did not happen in the early days of the vaccine rollout. Allocation and distribution systems often were being built on the fly, amid unprecedented efforts to vaccinate 280 million people.
“Our first doses came from the health department,” Althea Johnson, MedNorth’s chief executive officer, told Port City Daily. “The county reached out to include our patient population. We get the vaccines directly from the state now.”
Even when MedNorth regularly began receiving doses, the clinic hit a hurdle other North Carolina providers faced: the time it takes to log vaccinations in the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Management System (CVMS). It’s a task required by the state and widely described by frontline vaccine providers as cumbersome.
Johnson, however, says the system gradually has improved, and from mere experience, MedNorth has a better grasp on the best ways to reach out to its patient base and the public at large.
“You don’t have to be our patient for us to provide vaccination services,” Johnson said. (Covid-19 vaccinations are free, regardless of the provider).
Johnson is eager for MedNorth to be able to provide more community outreach events and take the vaccine to where the people are.
“I think right now we are in a good place,” she said. “We had to make sure how our system was going to work here because we still have the fiscal distancing requirement. We can only let so many people in the building at the time.”
Johnson and her fellow administrators at clinics and hospitals have had two overarching goals: secure as many doses of vaccine as possible and, smooth out the appointment and delivery system to get vaccines into the arms of as many people as possible. For MedNorth, the challenges are magnified by the population it serves, which includes many workers who can’t stay at home and people who may have no regular access to health care, resulting in co-morbidities that can make Covid-19 more severe and deadly.
Dr. Mayra Alicia Overstreet Galeano is a physician and chief medical officer at MedNorth. “A lot of our patients are frontline workers and don’t have too many options as far as being able to work from home,” she said.
Dr. Galeano pointed out that many of the people they try to serve live in crowded households, making physical distancing when someone has Covid-19 or has been exposed to the disease especially challenging.
The financial toll also has weighed heavily on MedNorth’s patients and would-be patients, many who work in service-industry jobs that have disappeared.
Both Johnson and Galeano said the steep learning curve for how to implement an urgent vaccination plan is easing and more time will be spent on reaching out to the community, including difficult groups to reach, such as people who are homebound.
“Hopefully, now that we’ve made sure our processes are in place, in the next few weeks, we will be able to reach out and do more open, community events,” Johnson said.
Both Johnson and Galeano say the massive undertaking is evolving, with improvements enacted as new lessons are learned.
“It’s really still a work in progress,” Johnson said of the state’s strategy. “But they’ve made a lot of progress over the last few weeks, so we think it will help.”
Questions about vaccine appointments can be directed to MedNorth at (910) 343-0270.
Scott Nunn is a Wilmington native and award-winning journalist with more than 30 years experience at daily newspapers. Send tips and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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