NEW HANOVER COUNTY — County Manager Chris Coudriet, in an “executive decision,” directed health officials to generate a plan that allows employees of the New Hanover County Detention Facility and 911 Communications to receive Covid-19 vaccinations immediately.
Over the last few months, the two wings of county government have faced exposure to the coronavirus, which forced substantial numbers of staff into quarantine.
“I’d like a plan that brings forward county personnel that work in those facilities into the vaccination schedule asap,” Coudriet wrote in a Wednesday email to county leaders. “There may be others that need to be advanced too, but I can’t accept anything less than our team in those sites beginning their journey to immunity now.”
Coudriet said he would “own the fallout” from the decision, as employees of those facilities technically are not eligible to receive vaccinations according to the state’s plan.
Groups 1 and 2 are open now, serving healthcare workers and individuals 65 and older. On Feb. 24 Group 3 will gradually open, with the governor allowing educators to line up first, as in-person learning begins to open across the state for K-5 classrooms.
“My concern now, and probably too late, is that we’re going to cross a near-term threshold where we cannot operate critical functions of county government — not just essential but critical to our community’s safety and security,” Coudriet wrote. “A lot of other things we can suspend or scale back — not those operations.”
In response to Coudriet’s directive, health leaders canvassed the employees of both facilities. According to a county spokesperson, between 80 and 100 employees reported a desire for vaccinations, though that number is preliminary, she said.
Coudriet told county leaders that he wanted the “internal critical-function vaccination effort” completed by the time school staff become eligible for vaccinations.
Currently, New Hanover County is only guaranteed 300 doses a week for first-dose vaccinations, though that number has been boosted in past weeks from additional allocations. In one case, NHRMC rerouted some of its supply to the county.
More than 30 of the approximately 80 staffers in the 911 call center “were affected directly by close contact of positives over a compressed period of time,” according to Coudriet’s email.
When asked two weeks ago about how Covid-19 has impacted the 911 call center during the pandemic, a county spokesperson said: “Like many places across the community, our 911 team has been impacted by COVID-19, but 911 services have not.”
On Jan. 25, as AT&T prepared to perform a connectivity test involving county services, a public safety data analyst at the 911 Communications center wrote to an AT&T representative, wanting to ensure the test wouldn’t put more strain on the center.
“We are having some COVID issues at the primary center and are very short on staff,” he wrote.
A week before that, 911 Manager Debora Cottle wrote to some county staff members: “Unfortunately, COVID is negatively impacting our daily operations.”
She urged staff members who were sick to stay away from work.
“We can’t allow each other to cripple the center,” she wrote. “We have over 230,000 citizens counting on us to be here if they need us, plus all the field units.”
Vaccines for staff but not inmates
In January, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services posted Covid-19 statistics that indicated at least 33 inmates and 13 employees of the detention center contracted Covid-19 in recent months.
As of February 12, the state dashboard listed 64 total cases in the facility, consisting of 24 staff and 40 inmates.
A spokesperson for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office said no inmates currently have the virus in the local facility, and only one staff member is absent now due to Covid-19 protocols but will soon be returning.
Inmate counts are rising. As of Feb. 10, around 540 arrestees were living at the facility. The detention center is staffed by four rotating squads, each consisting of 32 officers, who work 12 hour shifts.
The sheriff’s office spokesperson said vaccinations for staff would be welcomed. Inmate vaccinations would not be included in the move, however.
According to the current vaccination plan, jail inmates fall under Group 4.
Although the decision to prioritize vaccinations for the jail and 911 center runs counter to the state’s guidelines, the county spokesperson said the move is necessary.
Coudriet ended his correspondence explaining his call to action is paramount in maintaining county functions for residents: “I’m using e-mail because I am intentionally building a fact pattern so that if criticism comes it’s clear how and why this started. I’m taking ownership, as noted above, of complaints and accusations. It’s the right thing to do for our people and our community — we don’t play around with the idea that our aim is to keep the community safe, healthy, and secure.”
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