New Hanover County eyes Independence Mall for Covid-19 vaccination site

Independence Mall uses a shop space next to Foot Locker to host American Red Cross blood drives. It is now reviewing a contract to transform it into a Covid-19 vaccination site. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY – The New Hanover County Health Department is hoping to hop on a national trend of converting the country’s increasingly vacant mall space into makeshift Covid-19 vaccine clinics.

As of Friday afternoon, the county was close to finalizing a contract with Independence Mall that would allow the health department to temporarily move into an empty space between Foot Locker and Rack Room Shoes starting late next week.

“This would offer public health another central location, with access to ample parking and a good site flow to ensure we can get as many people in and out as efficiently and safely as possible on our vaccination days,” county spokesperson Kate Oelslager said.


RELATED: As colleges join the vaccination effort, UNCW serves 300 shots

Once the contract is signed by both parties, the health department can retrofit the site. At this time, no cost is associated with the agreement under review, according to Oelslager.

The contract would grant the county use of the space on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays through Sept. 30, although the county would utilize the space by appointment only and the public could only come during their assigned slot. The site could open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to the draft contract.

Oelslager said the county could administer 60 to 70 vaccines per hour at the site. The National Guard would assist with expediting the process, from directing traffic flow to registering patients, according to a draft of the contract.

The 6,888-square-foot space, just steps away from Belk department store, has likely caught the attention of passing shoppers with its oversized gold and purple crab and airborne whale in the shop windows. The American Red Cross holds blood drives at the store once a month. The next one is Mar. 29.

“This is a great site and gets a good amount of traffic so I believe that it will work well as a vaccination site,” James Jarvis, executive director of the American Red Cross of the Cape Fear Area, said. “The staff at Independence Mall have always been very accommodating and supportive of the community.”

The former Sears in Independence Mall also served as FEMA’s base site and a recovery center following Hurricane Florence, Jarvis noted.

It’s becoming increasingly common to see local governments pursuing untenanted retail spaces for vaccination events, especially at this time when mall vacancies are at historic highs.

Since Mar. 10, the federal government has treated up to 3,000 patients daily at the state’s largest vaccination center at Four Seasons Town Centre in Greensboro.

The Henderson County Department of Public Health, Gaston County and Novant Health in Forsyth County are a few of the providers in the state posted at malls to give shots.

New Hanover Regional Medical Center opened a vaccination site at Stone Theaters Pointe 14 Cinemas, which is not showing movies due to the pandemic.

New Hanover County has a lengthy list of vaccination sites, including the health and human services building, Senior Resource Center, and Martin Luther King Jr. Center. It also has set up “outreach” locations at churches, Solomon Towers apartments, the county courthouse, group homes, long-term care facilities and the individual residences of homebound people.

“Additional locations will come online as we move forward to continue outreach and remain as accessible as possible as more groups become eligible,” Oelslager said.

Its most recent effort to expand the list of vaccination sites into Independence Mall comes just as Gov. Roy Cooper has increased eligibility for the vaccine.

Starting Wednesday, the rest of Group 4 will be eligible to get the vaccine. The group includes various professions – from retail and hotel staff, to plumbers, electricians and exterminators – as well as students living in dorms. Group 4 is the final group before vaccine appointments open to anyone who wants one in North Carolina on April 7.


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