Officials: Vaccination A 'Massive' Local Effort – Transylvania County, NC
Last updated 1/18/2021 at 2:56pm
There are approximately 34,000 people who live in Transylvania County, and the effort to make sure every last one of them has the opportunity to get the COVID-19 vaccine (if they so wish) is a task put on Transylvania Public Health (TPH.)
“It takes approximately 20 minutes to administer the vaccine because you get a shot, but you have to wait for 15 minutes to make sure that you don’t have a reaction,” County Manager Jaime Laughter said. “So, if you took that 20 minutes and you multiplied that by 34,000 (about 11,333 hours), which is roughly our county population, it really gives you a sense of how much time it takes just to administer the vaccine. And that doesn’t account for the time and effort put into planning those vaccination events and also entering all that information into the federal system for each shot. I think that may help folks really think through just how massive of an effort this is, just for our county,” Laughter said.
As of this morning, TPH has administered 632 shots of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and has received 1,000 doses from the vaccine supplier. As of this morning, Transylvania Regional Hospital had not reported the amount of shots it has given or the number of does it has received.
Since the two COVID-19 vaccines received emergency use authorization in the United States last month, the rollout has been a decentralized effort, with no unified national plan, and the logistics of the “last mile” of the vaccine roll out has largely been left up to states and local health departments to decide. President-elect Joe Biden announced Friday that his administration would be taking a more unified national approach to vaccine delivery that he touts will increase access to the vaccine, but as of today it is unclear how his plan will shake out on the local level in Transylvania County.
TPH has been working to deliver the vaccine to the county’s populous as vaccine guidance, vaccine supply and information changes day by day.
“You know, somebody described it to me today as we are flying the plane while we’re also still building it, and that’s very true,” said Laughter. “And a lot of times that’s used as a negative connotation, but in this case it’s a relief that we got the plane off the ground and that we are starting to see vaccinations happen. We will be adapting our plans as we go along and doing our best to expand the vaccine accessibility as things change. We may see more resources come. We may see some different strategies come down from the state or from the federal level, and as we do we will adapt to those and try to continue to get the vaccine out.”
Many in the county (and across the country) have lamented the lack of clear information on when they will be able to receive the vaccine, but that is because officials from the federal level down to the county level simply don’t know.
Vaccine supply is currently limited, and TPH does not know how many doses they will receive each week until the Friday beforehand. This makes planning for vaccine appointments very difficult as it changes on a weekly basis. The health department does not want to open appointments up until it knows exactly how many doses are available, which is information that changes week to week and only becomes available at the end of each week. Last week, TPH opened up slots for around 300 vaccination appointments, and they filled up quickly. In addition, the logistics of maintaining a waiting list on top of handling scheduling vaccination appointments is simply not feasible for the 32-person public health department in Transylvania County to manage.
Today, TPH opened up a COVID-19 call center in the Transylvania County Public Library to help field the deluge of calls they have been receiving from people wanting to know more information on the vaccination effort.
Transylvania County also announced last week that they would be using the county’s emergency management notification system to send out alerts whenever new vaccine appointments open up. More information on these two initiatives can be found the adjacent story. To reach the COVID-19 hotline, call (828) 884-4007.
Changing State Guidance
Last week, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) changed, yet again, their guidance for who qualifies for each vaccination group. Previously, in North Carolina the vaccine roll out plan categorized people into five different phases (1a, 1b, 2, 3 and 4). Transylvania County was on Phase 1b of the roll out, meaning people in phase 1a (frontline health care workers and long-term care facility staff and residents) and people in phase 1b (people 75-years-old and up) were eligible to sign up for the vaccine.
The NCDHHS changed the guidelines for who fits into what category and modified the phases to be 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. Phase 1 and the previous Phase 1a are the same, but the new guidelines allow any adult 65 or up to qualify for the vaccine, whereas the previous system’s phase 1b set the age parameter at 75-years-old and up.
The new guidelines are as follows:
•Phase 1: health care workers and long-term care staff and residents
•Phase 2: anyone 65 or older regardless of health status or living situation
•Phase 3: frontline essential workers
•Phase 4: adults at high risk of exposure and increased risk of severe illness
•Phase 5: everyone who wants a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine.
According to TPH public information officer Tara Rybka, the new guidelines mean that approximately 9,000 to 10,000 now qualify for the new Phase 2 category, nearly a third of the county’s residents. TPH will begin vaccinating those who fall into the new Phase 1 and Phase 2 categories this week. Rybka said it will likely take many weeks before everyone currently eligible to receive the vaccine will be able to make an appointment due to limited supplies. Rybka said which phase the county is in is determined by the NCDHHS.
“The phases are intended to give us some good guidance that aligns with CDC recommendations and aligns with federal priorities, but it also allows local health departments and hospitals to have some flexibility to move to the next group as they complete each phase and as they have vaccine available to move to the next phase. Transylvania County has a very high population of folks who are 75 and up or 65 and up, so it may take us longer to vaccinate that group than other counties that have much younger populations,” Rybka said.
According to his vaccine roll out announcement last Friday, Biden said he would invoke the Defense Protection Act to increase the supplies needed to ramp up the vaccination effort. His administration’s goal is to administer 100 million vaccine shots by his first 100 days in office.
Rybka also mentioned the state has announced that it will be hosting large community vaccine events in the coming weeks, the closest of which will be held in Henderson County at Blue Ridge Community Health Services, Henderson County Department of Public Health, Mountain Area Health Education Center and Pardee Hospital (UNC Health), and in Buncombe County at Buncombe County Health Department in partnership with Western North Carolina Community Health Services, and Western Carolina Medical Society. Rybka said residents do not have to get vaccinated in the county in which they live.
As more vaccine supplies become available, Rybka said other providers in the county will begin offering the vaccine to the public, but the timeline and plan for that eventuality are still unclear. Walgreens and CVS have been contracted by the federal government to administer the COVID-19 vaccine to the long-term care facilities in Transylvania County and will begin offering the vaccine to the public once they finish those facilities, said Rybka. Other pharmacies will also begin offering the vaccine when there are more supplies.
As the vaccination effort moves on, the hope is that the Biden administration’s newly announced plan will help local health departments like TPH vaccinate the masses, but for now TPH is working together with the county to do what they can with the tools they’ve got.
So far, Laughter believes TPH has acted heroically in the face of the pandemic.
“After seeing their performance through this early part of COVID…we still had impacts of COVID, but we faired better than a lot of counties out there, and I think that’s just a testament to their hard work and their dedication to this community to get information out, to support the community in public health,” she said. “They’re taking on this new task and this new phase and working some incredible hours and giving their time that’s taking them away from their family a lot of times to do this. The level of dedication is just absolutely astounding.”