As surge fades, vax demand is ‘very low’ across county

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As the COVID-19’s Omicron surge fades and mask mandates ease, Chatham’s vaccination rates lag behind overall rates across North Carolina — and vaccine demand has trickled to “very low,” according to county health officials.

North Carolina averaged more than 30,000 new coronavirus cases per day during a three-week period beginning the first week of January. On Monday, two months later — as most school districts across the state, including Chatham’s, transitioned from mandates to optional masking — just 528 new cases were reported across the state. That was the lowest number since last July 7; also on Monday, for the fifth straight day, fewer than 5% of coronavirus tests results came back positive in N.C.

Across Chatham, 63% of the population — a total of 47,113 residents — have been vaccinated with at least one dose, according to data from the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services. Fifty-nine percent have received two doses (or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), while 34%, or 25,381 people, have been vaccinated with one booster or additional dose.

North Carolina’s percentages: 61% vaccinated with two doses, 65% with one, and 49% with two doses and a booster.

In the meantime, the death toll in Chatham County since the start of the pandemic has climbed to 108, with 12,530 total cases reported. Still, vaccine demand has slowed down considerably in Chatham, according to Mike Zelek, the director of the county’s Public Health Department.

“At our clinic, we typically administer a handful each day we offer them (two days per week),” Zelek said. “We are seeing this at other sites as well, and with that the Optum vaccination site at the Old Ag Building in Pittsboro will have its last day March 19 (testing will continue).”

Pharmacies around the county are still offering vaccines; options can be found at vaccines.gov.

As he watches case counts fall, Zelek repeats what’s become a mantra for him and for other health care providers during the course of the pandemic: vaccines continue to offer strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death if you get the virus.

“Given the likelihood that COVID will remain with us long term, we should expect to get vaccinated again in the future,” he said. “Also, with the recent studies showing lower vaccine effectiveness against infection for 5- to 11-year-olds compared to older children and adults, another dose could very well be coming for that age group given dosage was lower. But remember the vaccine continues to hold well against severe illness for children this age, which is why it remains important to get them vaccinated.”

Zelek’s staff has administered about 8,400 doses of the vaccine, and with demand soft, that means expiring unused vaccines get discarded — about 771 so far, according to Zachary Horner, the health department’s communications specialist.

COVID-19 vaccine inventory and distribution has evolved over the course of the vaccination campaign, Zelek said.

“In the first three to four months of the campaign, we administered every dose we received,” he said. “This was possible at that time, given the strong demand and internal efforts to have waiting lists for any doses leftover due to no-shows. It was something we took very seriously, understanding how important of a resource the vaccine was for our community. In April 2021, we began to see supply at mass vaccination events outpace demand. Vaccine providers, including us, are careful to plan to avoid discarding more doses than necessary.”

That mean keeping vials frozen and unpunctured until they were needed, he said.

“So, if you have 400 appointments for a mass vaccination event, you may start by drawing 200 doses, and then draw from additional vials as needed,” Zelek said. “As demand slowed, given vials contain multiple doses, some vaccine left in the vials was inevitably discarded. This is something I imagine every vaccine provider has experienced and aligns with guidance from NC DHHS and the CDC to prioritize getting folks vaccinated. That said, our clinic worked hard scheduling appointments to avoid this as much as possible.”

The health department transferred vaccines to other providers in the county, especially, Zelek said, in the early days when supply was limited.

“We understood the importance of getting them onboarded to expand options,” he said. “Over time, this slowed as they had direct access to supply. We have never maintained a strong stockpile; rather, we have asked DHHS for what we anticipate needing for the next few weeks and reorder as needed. This has helped us to avoid needing to discard vaccine, though frozen vaccine has a decent shelf life.”

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