NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Citing a dip in vaccine-seekers throughout the area, New Hanover Regional Medical Center opted to decline a shipment of Pfizer doses from state channels last week. The hospital’s hiatus from first-dose vaccination operations represented a decreased desire for shots, leaving some health officials in the tri-county region concerned that the tapering off is happening too early.
“We’ve seen our demand plummet over the past several weeks,” said West Paul, NHRMC chief clinical officer.
In the current phase of the pandemic, Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations have been driven by younger populations at a higher degree than seen previously, according to local health officials. “It’s completely opposite of the beginning of the pandemic,” Paul said.
NHRMC did continue last week to serve thousands of second dose shots, which are automatically routed to providers based on the number of first-dose vaccinations given.
This step back indicated that vaccinations for senior citizens have yielded encouraging outcomes, but simultaneously health officials are wondering why robust demand for vaccines has dwindled as the eligibility list simultaneously expanded.
Vaccine supply to southeastern North Carolina fell sharply last week. New Hanover County providers took in more than 11,000 doses at the beginning of April. The number fell to around 2,500 two weeks ago and dropped to 1,470 the week of Apr. 19.
In Pender County, a shipment of 200 Moderna doses was the total bounty supplied by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to vaccinators. (Compare that to Mecklenburg County, populated by over 1 million people, which received 129,240 first doses last week.)
Supply in Brunswick County holds steady; roughly 4,500 vaccines have been shipped to its providers in each of the past three weeks.
“Although we have seen a slight decrease in appointment request, demand overall still remains high,” Brunswick County Health Director Chris Harrelson emailed to Port City Daily. “Brunswick County has also seen an increase in vaccine providers as more independent practices have begun to be approved to receive vaccine supplies by NCDHHS.”
The previous base of operations for NHRMC’s vaccination campaign, The Pointe movie theater, started showing films again, and NHRMC staff left the space earlier this month. Paul said many NHRMC vaccinators at the movie theater site and elsewhere have worked on a volunteer basis, in addition to their typical work roles.
Meanwhile, in New Hanover and Pender counties, it takes longer to fill blocks of appointment slots than it did in January and February, and the counties have vaccinated 35% and 28% of their populations with at least one dose, according to NCDHHS data. Brunswick County currently has dosed 39% of residents with at least one shot. North Carolina as a state has partially vaccinated 37.7% of residents.
Gov. Cooper announced this week his aim to see two-thirds of the state population receive at least one shot to fully lift Covid-19 restrictions, like gathering and capacity limits and social-distance measures.
With health officials continuing to harp that herd immunity will likely require 70% or more of the population to obtain antibodies, seeing decreased demand at such a distance from the end goal has raised eyebrows.
This fall-off in vaccine requests comes as no surprise to the chief medical officer of Cape Fear Clinic, M. Kent Locklear, who has long contended that vaccine hesitancy would be a formidable obstacle locally. Cape Fear Clinic has administered 100 doses of Moderna each week to the most vulnerable members of the population. Locklear previously told Port City Daily the clinic’s the patient base is now more regularly expressing a reluctance to be dosed with the vaccine.
Starting Apr. 26, the NCDHHS will allow providers more flexibility in the number of doses received per week. Previously the allotments were a “take it or leave it” proposition, with no room for negotiation (which was part of the reason NHRMC decided to hold back on obtaining vaccines last week).
“If you took it and didn’t use it, you would be penalized with the next shipment,” Paul said.
According to a spokesperson for NCDHHS, internal research shows that seven out of 10 North Carolinians “are vaccinated or want to be vaccinated.”
Under the new vaccination allocation system, providers will request their preferred number of doses each week.
“Providers who are unable to receive or administer the current large allotments of vaccine (1,170 Pfizer and 100 Moderna) can work with nearby providers to transfer vaccine in smaller quantities,” a department spokesperson wrote in an email.
Update: This story was clarified to convey that NHRMC temporarily halted its first dose vaccination operations, but continued to serve second-dose shots last week.
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