Sunday, October 2, 2022

UNCW seeking foothold in vaccination effort with professor eligibility on the horizon

After testing more than 2,000 students for Covid-19 last week, UNCW reported only four positive cases. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

WILMINGTON — Knowing that many professors become eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine within a month, UNCW hopes to eventually operate as a vaccine provider.

The university sought approvals from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, the gatekeepers of vaccine supply, but its application has not yet been approved. DHHS officials repeatedly emphasize that onboarding new providers will be a slow process, until the weekly vaccine shipments from the federal government substantially increase in size. 

RELATED: Cooper expands vaccine providers, feds increase supply by 5%

Katrin Wesner-Harts, the university’s top health official, recalled the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, when UNCW administered more than 3,300 vaccines to community members. 

“I always believe we should have as many options open to us as possible,” Wesner-Harts said. “So whether we become the provider or whether we just assist the county with the work that’s happening in the county, we’re ready to do either.”

Previously, state funds were deployed to acquire 62 vaccine-storage freezers for public universities across the state. The University of North Carolina System — which oversees the 16 public universities in N.C. — hoped the added infrastructure could support local operations. Four universities recently established vaccination clinics, and more than 150,000 doses have been administered by UNC Health at sites statewide. 

UNCW was told to expect three of those freezers. One was delivered this week, and it was quickly forwarded to New Hanover County for its vaccination efforts. 

“So, the first group of people who got approved to be vaccine providers were folks that had a lot of their patient base being 65 and older,” Wesner-Harts said. “That’s not us.” 

On March 10, university professors will join the line of those eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, along with employees of seven other “essential industry sectors.” 

RELATED: Cooper says educators will be first in Group 3 to receive Covid-19 vaccine

Amid heightened calls for reopening schools, from grassroots and federal levels, Gov. Roy Cooper gave K-12 staff a two-week head start on vaccine access before the floodgates fully open to Group 3 on March 10. 

Professors are included in the “education industry” along with K-12 teachers and support staff, but university faculty will not become eligible for the vaccine on Feb. 24.

The caveat in the state’s vaccination plan is that school staff — including university professors — must be working in person to achieve vaccine eligibility soon. Professors with a full slate of virtual classes will have to wait longer, Wesner-Harts said. 

A New Hanover County spokesperson said there are no concrete plans for vaccine collaboration yet, but that “UNCW continues to be a partner with Public Health, and our team would welcome their approval by the state as a vaccine administrator.”

Earlier versions of the vaccination plan put more emphasis on vaccinating students, but the current version has students in Group 5, along with the remainder of the general population. 

Like many other universities, UNCW now tests students regularly for Covid-19. The student health center would typically conduct fewer than 100 tests early on in the fall semester, but during this semester, the new “surveillance testing” process is expected to account for 6,500 tests weekly once in full gear. 

Additional staff were added to facilitate the mass-testing operation, which requires once-a-week testing for on-campus students, and bi-weekly testing for students who commute to campus. 

In its first week of surveillance testing, the university administered 2,698 tests, and a campus announcement stated that only four of those came back positive. According to the UNCW Covid-19 dashboard, there are 62 active cases among students — 46 from off-campus students and 16 from residential students — as well as three active cases among faculty and staff.

The university also recently announced its spring commencement in May will be a virtual ceremony. 

“Although the vaccination rollout is gaining momentum in North Carolina and across the nation, current projections indicate that a significant portion of the population may not be fully vaccinated by early May,” according to a campus announcement. “We held the university’s first-ever virtual commencement in December, and the ceremonies went very well. We look forward to building on that model this spring.”

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