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

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman surveys a vaccination effort designed to inoculate school staff. While frontline workers become eligible for shots this week — and a new Covid-19 vaccine comes to market — New Hanover County says more time is needed to vaccinate the 65-and-older community. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County).

SOUTHEASTERN NC — After Gov. Cooper announced that vaccines will open to the rest of frontline essential workers Wednesday, New Hanover County announced it will hold off on introducing new groups to its vaccination clinics. State leaders allowed counties to delay vaccinating frontline workers in order to shore up inoculations for healthcare workers, elderly populations, and as of last week, school staff. 

Donna Fayko, health and human services director, told the board of commissioners that approximately 63% of the county’s population ages 65 and older — a group estimated to be around 37,000 people — has been vaccinated. 

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


The county would like for more than 72% of this population to be vaccinated with first doses before opening fully to Group 3, to achieve a level of herd immunity in that population and because older adults are among the most vulnerable to severe disease and hospitalization from the virus,” according to the New Hanover County website.  

Nearly 40,000 first doses of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine have been administered in the county, according to data offered by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. This week, the county will receive 1,470 first shots — a mixture of Pfizer and Moderna doses — that will be administered to eligible residents.

Fayko told the board that 100,000 county residents are expected to fall into Group 3 — a wide-spanning network of workers from fields, ranging from agriculture to politics, all with a need to work in person. Moving through that group will take months, seeing as how administering 40,000 doses spanned two months. The county’s total population is around 235,000 people.

Fayko said an estimated 2,000-3,000 people who received their shots in New Hanover County are not county residents.

“We will not have choices of what supply we receive, so we will be dosing whatever vaccine we receive,” Fayko told the board. This week 83,700 doses of the new vaccine will flow into counties around the state — New Hanover Regional Medical Center will receive 2,000 J&J doses.

Given that the new product is 86% effective at preventing severe to critical illness, but has a lower efficacy for preventing moderate to severe illness, Fayko said the “marketing” done for the vaccine should accentuate its ability to keep individuals out of the hospital. The new vaccine is not shown to reduce person-to-person transmission. 

Novant Health, the hospital network with institutions in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, reported having performed more than 80,000 first-dose vaccinations to date. The company was allotted 9,360 doses of Pfizer vaccines for the totality of its campuses. A separate boost of 900 Moderna doses, along with 1,170 of the Pfizer, will serve Brunswick County, according to a company spokesperson. 

Some Novant Health vaccination appointments, even for individuals ages 65 and older, are scheduled out months into the future; all appointment slots are currently booked, and walks-ins will not be accepted, according to company officials. 

A spokesperson for New Hanover Regional Medical Center said the hospital will begin vaccinating community members in Group 3 this week. NHRMC, in addition to the 2,000 J&J doses, will take in 2,340 Pfizer first-doses this week to fuel appointments and events.

During a Novant Health press briefing, company officials said it was likely the newly approved J&J vaccine would be routed to facilities in Mecklenburg and Forsyth counties, while the company also opened a clinic in Charlotte that has the ability to accommodate up to 3,000 vaccination appointments per day. 

“It’s never going to be quite perfect in how the group’s work and who’s eligible,” infectious disease specialist David Priest said during the Novant Zoom briefing. 

“When you’re a medical student and you’re cutting sutures for a surgeon — you cut them — they’re either too short or too long. You never get it quite right, and this is the same thing,” he said. 

On top of the vaccination efforts centralized in Raleigh through the DHHS, a few Walgreens locations in New Hanover County are receiving 100 doses of vaccine per week, and FEMA is establishing a high-throughput vaccination clinic in Greensboro beginning next week.

During a White House press conference Tuesday, press secretary Jen Psaki said the Defense Production Act has been invoked to hurry the production of the one-shot vaccine. Shipments received by states this week were manufactured in a Netherlands facility.

Capping long-simmering talks between the vaccine producer and Merck — the pharmaceutical giant that once sought to create a vaccine of its own — the White House brokered a deal that appoints Merck, a rival company, as a producer of the J&J vaccine, according to The Washington Post. J&J vowed to disseminate 100 million doses by the end of June. 

“We do believe that we will have force multipliers,” Fayko told commissioners at the Monday meeting. “Because, as more providers come online to be able to vaccinate, and as they receive supply of vaccine, they will help us reach [Group 3] as well.” 


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