Saturday, April 1, 2023

Court worker vaccinations on horizon in New Hanover County

While New Hanover County will hold off on swiftly moving to vaccinate frontline essential workers, plans are in the works for vaccinating court workers next Friday. The office previously closed for a week due to a Covid-19 exposure.(Port City Daily/Johanna F. Still)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Court employees will be the next group of frontline essential workers, second only to school staff, able to tap into New Hanover County’s Covid-19 vaccine stock, once the county moves onward into the next phase of the vaccination plan. 

The county announced on Tuesday — after Gov. Roy Cooper opened the vaccine queue to all frontline essential workers — staff would continue to inoculate only frontline healthcare workers, senior citizens, and school staff. 

Read More: Cooper opens vaccines to all frontline essential workers Wednesday, expands into Group 4 by end of March

At this time, around 65% of the 65 and older population in the county has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. The target goal is getting 75% or more of the elderly population vaccinated. 

“We really want to see more 65 and over residents vaccinated because they are very much at risk and they’re 90% or more of the deaths for our region,” said interim health director David Howard. 

Howard said the state’s accelerated green light for essential worker vaccinations offers flexibility. Some counties, he said, experienced high demand for the vaccine at the outset, and then interest tapered as time went on and no new groups became eligible. 

“We have not seen that here in New Hanover,” Howard said. On Thursday the county scheduled 670 vaccination appointments online and 330 through a call center — all in about two hours.

Related: With frontline workers eyeing vaccines, New Hanover County needs more time to inoculate seniors

New Hanover Regional Medical Center — armed with 4,340 doses this week, including 2,000 doses of the newly-approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine — has begun inoculating essential workers. 

“We’re still working through plans for deploying the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” a hospital spokesperson said in an email.

NHRMC has reached out to nonprofit service providers and employers to schedule blocks of appointments for frontline essential workers, with equity and efficiency as the priorities, the spokesperson said.

“The hospital is going to move into some pockets of Group 3 beyond the educational sector,” Howard said. “Then it makes sense for us to provide a higher percentage of allocation to the 65 and over group.”

Court staff to be vaccinated by New Hanover County 

While county staff’s focus largely remains inoculating the most vulnerable populations, those working in the court house successfully lobbied for a vaccination event.

New Hanover County Clerk of Superior Court Jan Kennedy emailed Tufanna Bradley, the assistant county manager overseeing the health and human services agency, on Feb. 23. 

“As I understand it ya’ll have to open it up for the Group 3 that are not educators on March 10th,” Kennedy wrote to Bradley. “So I am not asking that we get ahead of anyone else in the line, I am simply requesting that we be allowed to get ours when March 10th rolls around.”

Kennedy continued: “We have not had a choice but to keep our doors open and allow the public inside. If our Courthouse closes down due to COVID then the public would be at a great disadvantage.

“Domestic Violence Victims would not have access for protection, Inmates would be kept in our Jail longer than required by statue, Incompetency proceedings would be delayed for people with Mental Health issues, and I could continue the list,” she wrote.

According to Howard, county staff will vaccinate court workers March 12. 

“If someone happens to fall first on a timeline, it’s only because of the capacity,” Howard said. “We’re really doing our planning across many groups simultaneously as opposed to putting someone first.”

A staff member at the courthouse said Kennedy did not grant interviews, but confirmed she was pushing for court staff vaccinations. 

Kennedy emailed NHC Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko on Wednesday: “I have been approached by several Attorney’s [sic] locally who believe that they should also be included with our shots. I can’t disagree with them since they have to be here everyday as well. If I get their information would it be okay to add them to our list?”

Fayko responded that expansion of the group would not be possible. 

“We have been informed that there seems to be some scope creep to our original plan, which we simply do not have doses to accommodate at this time,” Fayko wrote. “We will need to stick with the judges and staff, clerk and staff, adult probation, and [Department of Juvenile Justice].” 

She told Kennedy that NHRMC could potentially vaccinate attorneys. 

Howard said when considering the court workers soon to be vaccinated by the county, “it doesn’t include everyone who might have a reason to walk in the building, that would be a bit untenable.” 

“That would mushroom quite a bit with the numbers you might see,” he said.

The Clerk of Superior Court Criminal Division was previously closed for a week in early February, following a Covid-19 exposure within the office.

“When you have these closures, they have to move the cases,” said criminal defense lawyer Jimmy McGee. “People continue to get arrested, and continue to have court dates, so what it ends up doing is further backing up the court system.”

The inmate population in the county jail standardly eclipses 500. In past months Covid-19 has spread among both inmates and detention center officers. The county manager previously made an executive decision to offer vaccinations to jail staff and 911 call center staff ahead of schedule. Thirty employees in the 911 center received doses through the emergency measure, along with 149 detention center employees.

Read More: ‘It’s the right thing to do’: County manager orders early vaccinations for staff at jail and 911 center

McGee added that the complications associated with Zoom trials have many attorneys hoping for a return to normalcy. 

“It’s really important when you have a witness, to be able to see their face, to see their body language,” he said. “Because you can get clues from that.”

Samantha Dooies, assistant to the district attorney, said the office appreciated the efforts made by local officials to vaccinate court employees. 

“The function of the courts is an essential service to the public and the courts have remained open and operational throughout the pandemic,” Dooies wrote in an email. “Any reduction to services and trials has been fully restored and vaccinated court employees will allow both criminal and civil matters to proceed in New Hanover and Pender Counties.”

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