Chatham distributes vaccine

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 1/20/21

The Chatham County Public Health Department is updating its vaccine distribution plans to align with Gov. Roy Cooper’s modified eligibility requirements as announced by the N.C. Dept. of Health and …

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Chatham distributes vaccine

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The Chatham County Public Health Department is updating its vaccine distribution plans to align with Gov. Roy Cooper’s modified eligibility requirements as announced by the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services last week.

Under the new guidelines, all persons ages 65 and older now qualify to receive the vaccine regardless of their exposure risk to the coronavirus.

The previous distribution plan divided eligibility between four phases with several subgroups. Health care workers directly fighting the pandemic and long-term care facility residents were first in line for the vaccine, followed by adults 75 and older — before several more categories of health care workers.

Adults aged 65 to 74 were fifth in order of priority.

The former eligibility breakdown was criticized for adding confusion to what has already been a bungled vaccination effort. State officials hoped to inoculate about half a million North Carolinians within the first weeks of distribution. The latest data as of Tuesday indicate that 450,000 had received the first shot — still a small part of the state’s population, but a target that was anticipated weeks ago.

While vaccine distribution has been sluggish, daily coronavirus cases have remained at alarming seven-day averages and the death count has accelerated. Just two weeks ago, the state topped 7,000 COVID-19 deaths. On Saturday, it surpassed 8,000.

State officials hope the revised guidelines will simplify the process for county health departments as they execute N.C.’s vaccine distribution plan.

“We know there has been more confusion than there needs to be, and so we are definitely hearing the message about simplicity and speed,” said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state secretary of health and human services, in an announcement last week. “That’s why we’re trying to really be clear: what we’re vaccinating right now is all health care workers and those 65 and older.”

Mike Zelek, Chatham County public health director, warned, however, that guideline changes may introduce more confusion than clarification while the county adjusts. But soon, he thinks, it will contribute to a more efficient vaccination effort.

“Although changes to the prioritization guidance once vaccination efforts are already underway can create initial challenges with communications and cause an influx of calls and messages, we will continue to work with the state and other partners to implement plans according to the updated guidance and get Chatham County vaccinated against COVID-19,” Zelek told the News + Record. “We do expect to accelerate as more mass vaccination clinics are scheduled, depending on allocation.”

To receive a vaccine, you may add your name to the list of eligible Chatham County residents by following the instructions at chathamnc.org/coronavirusvaccine.

You can also schedule an appointment with UNC Health to be vaccinated in Siler City or Chapel Hill, among other locations around the state. Both UNC Health patients and non-UNC Health patients are being accepted. For more information, visit vaccine.unchealthcare.org/get-vaccinated or call (984) 215-5485.

For Chathamites with accessibility challenges or who have trouble navigating the internet, CCPHD has made arrangements to facilitate mobile vaccination clinics. But residents in those categories should expect longer waits to receive their vaccines.

“We have worked closely with the Chatham County Council on Aging to identify and schedule vaccination appointments with residents who have access issues and who do not have access to our online Vaccine Information Tool,” Zelek said. “... We have established a mobile vaccination team to set up vaccination clinics in different community spaces in coordination with these partners and have a hotline (919-545-8323) to take contact information of those who want the vaccine in the current phases and follow up with appointments. The call volume has been very high, and it will take time to reach the individuals who have left their information.”

After adults aged 65 and older have been vaccinated, inoculation will open first to essential workers, then younger adults at high risk for exposure and increased risk of severe illness, and finally everyone else.

The complete breakdown of prioritization criteria is as follows, according to the NCDHHS website:

• Group 1: health care workers fighting COVID-19 and long-term care staff and residents

First up for vaccination were health care workers in direct contact with the coronavirus. They include dentists, home health aides, nurses, optometrists, pharmacists and physical therapists.

Long-term care facilities have been notorious hotbeds for the pandemic, so long-term care staff and residents — people in skilled nursing facilities, adult care homes and continuing care retirement communities — were also included in group 1.

• Group 2: older adults

Since the governor’s announcement last week, North Carolina has opened vaccination to members of group 2 — anyone 65 years or older, regardless of health status or living situation.

• Group 3: frontline essential workers

Frontline essential workers “are in sectors essential to the functioning of society and who are at substantially higher risk for exposure to COVID-19,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• Group 4: adults at high risk for exposure and increased risk of severe illness

Anyone between 16 and 64 years old (coronavirus vaccines have not been approved yet for children) with high-risk medical conditions fall under group 4. Their conditions may include cancer, COPD, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease, Type 2 diabetes and anything else that increases risk of severe disease from COVID-19.

Group 4 also includes prisoners and anyone else living in close group settings who did not receive a vaccine as part of group 1.

Essential workers who were not earlier vaccinated may also fall under group 4. These include, according to the CDC, “workers in transportation and logistics, water and wastewater, food service, shelter and housing (e.g., construction), finance (e.g., bank tellers), information technology and communications, energy, legal, media, public safety (e.g., engineers) and public health workers.”

• Group 5: Everyone else

For updates on the vaccine’s distribution in Chatham County, follow CCPHD’s social media channels and website at chathamnc.org/publichealth and facebook.com/chathamhealth.

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

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