'REACHING THE MOST VULNERABLE AMONG US'

Another mass vaccination event complete for Chatham County

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PITTSBORO — Council on Aging Director Dennis Streets and his team are among a large swath of Chathamites who have been laboring to serve county residents in new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, it was Street’s turn to roll up his sleeves again — literally, this time — during a mass vaccination event at the Chatham County Agriculture & Convention Center. As a WRAL-TV cameraman recorded the event, Streets received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Despite the fact that it’s overcast outside today,” he said, “it’s a very bright day, not just for me, but for all the others who are coming to get the vaccine.”

It has been almost a year since the first confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis was given in Chatham. But now that a vaccine is available, for Streets it seems the pandemic’s end may finally be in sight.

“With the leadership of public health, and the collaboration of emergency management, Chatham Hospital, the Sheriff’s Office, Chatham Transit and all the others you’ll see today,” he said, “... we’ve been working very hard to keep people informed, educate them about the three Ws, and just make sure that we’re reaching particularly the most vulnerable among us.”

Under the state’s prioritization guidelines, “anyone 65 years or older, regardless of health status or living situation” now qualifies for the COVID-19 vaccine. Many in that age-range have mobility challenges that inhibit their access to vaccine centers, Streets said, and limited internet connectivity makes scheduling appointments almost impossible for some.

COA facilities aren’t open these days, but his organization and his staff have directed many of the agency’s resources toward helping “people who are homebound, sheltering in place, anxious — obviously — and eager” to get the vaccine.

“We identified those and worked back with public health and then back with Chatham Transit,” Streets said. “So, you’ll see vans today of people who are on it with wheelchairs and scooters, people ... just very excited to be here today.”

At 68 years of age, Streets also qualified for the vaccine and was the first on Monday to receive a dose.

“So, I’m in that group,” he said. “I’m really excited about getting my vaccine.”

In total, 214 inoculations were performed during the mass vaccination event, the third in three weeks to be hosted by Chatham County’s health department at the Pittsboro Agriculture & Convention Center. This was the second week that it has been organized as a drive-thru event.

“Drive-thru offers a number of advantages,” said CCPHD Director Mike Zelek. “... Logistically, it’s very easy to maintain flow, speed — people get in and out faster.”

With rare exception, attendees depart within 30 minutes of their arrival, Zelek said, “so, we’re pretty proud of that. I’m sure you’ve seen places where it’s been longer, so that’s really a testament to our team.”

And drive-thrus minimize potential spread of the coronavirus as compared to indoor alternatives.

“Of course, we’re in a pandemic right now,” Zelek said, “the more we can do to keep people spaced out and outside, the better.”

Despite logistical success, though, county representatives were disappointed to have received fewer vaccines than in previous shipments.

“People in the community are so frustrated, I’m sure,” said Chatham County Public Information Officer Kara Dudley. “We have 17,000 people on our contact list right now.”

Of those, about 11,000 are currently eligible for vaccines.

“But we’re only getting 400 one week, 200 on another,” Dudley said, “that’s not even scratching the surface.”

North Carolina topped one million vaccines on Monday — a momentous achievement — but far fewer than necessary to meet the state’s demand. The vaccine shortage has caused widespread consternation, but Chatham’s health department and independent providers are powerless to supply more shots. The county’s allocation is subject to state-level decision making.

“The state says they get 120,000 each week,” said CCPHD Communications Specialist Zachary Horner, “so they divide that among the counties and among the providers. They’re working with what they have, so we’re working with what we have.”

Local health officials are not responsible for the bottleneck, but still they regret the delay in vaccine dispensation.

“We’re sorry that this effort takes so much time,” Zelek said. “We’ve been saying to folks over the last several weeks, ‘We appreciate your patience, this just takes time because the supply is limited right now.’ ... The supply just doesn’t meet demand, and that’s just the reality.”

But for both those who have and have not received vaccinations, the recommendations — besides patience — are the same: mask up.

“The CDC recommendation is still to wear your mask,” Horner said. “There haven’t been studies yet that say one way or the other, whether you can still pass the virus on to someone else if you’ve been vaccinated. So, right now, yes, the guidance is still to keep wearing a face-covering after you get the vaccine because yes, now you’ve received that protection. But we don’t know how long it lasts yet, we don’t know if you can pass the virus on to someone else. So, continue to wear your face covering.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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