How to make sense of North Carolina’s updated COVID-19 vaccine data

Change sees Chatham up to 63% of population with at least one dose

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Dionicio Hernández, 36, receives his first dose of the Moderna vaccine in May at Chapel in the Pines, a presbyterian church in Chapel Hill.
Dionicio Hernández, 36, receives his first dose of the Moderna vaccine in May at Chapel in the Pines, a presbyterian church in Chapel Hill.
Staff photo by Peyton Sickles
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Nearing our third year of this pandemic, making sense of the numbers isn’t always an easy thing to do. New changes in the state of North Carolina’s COVID “dashboard,” for example, yield good news — even more Chatham residents have received vaccination doses, thanks to a recalculation.

To address these and other related issues, the News + Record reached out to Zachary Horner, the communications specialist for the Chatham County Public Health Department. He is a former journalist who worked for the News + Record before joining CCPHD in June 2020. He is a graduate of Elon University who is currently in the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Kentucky. He lives in Sanford with his wife, Sarah, and cat, Holmes.

There’s been a change in COVID-19 vaccination numbers on the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ dashboard. Why the change, and how are Chatham’s numbers reflected in that change?

According to NCDHHS, the change was made to “more accurately reflect the county of residence for the person vaccinated.” This means that we now have a more accurate picture of how many Chatham residents have received at least one dose or received two doses of an mRNA vaccine or one dose of Johnson & Johnson. NCDHHS said that Chatham had among the highest upticks in terms of percentage points at 6%.

So, we are now, as of this past Friday, at 63% with at least one dose and 58% with two doses of Pfizer or Moderna or one dose of Johnson & Johnson.

The vaccines have been available for about a year now. Back in July, Chatham reached the 50% number — at least half of residents (as counts were done then) were at least partially vaccinated. In half a year that number has increased to 63. What’s the health department’s assessment of that number, of that relatively small increase?

There are a couple things to remember when assessing the 63% number. First, there’s still a portion of the population, those younger than age 5, who are not eligible to receive the vaccine yet, and some people should not receive the vaccine due to allergies or medical conditions.

Second, and this is the important thing: we recognize that most people who wanted the vaccine have gotten it already, with many of them getting it early in the distribution process. We saw significant uptick from when the Pfizer vaccine was authorized in December 2020 to that 50% number you mentioned last July.

We recognize that there are many reasons why Chatham residents may be skeptical or hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine. For example, some might be concerned about the companies that made them. We get it. Some pharmaceutical companies have been responsible for bad actions in the recent past, like the opioid epidemic. However, you need to look no further than the real-world results of the COVID-19 vaccines so far to know that they are safe and effective. And remember, vaccines are authorized by outside agencies after a thoughtful review that includes panels of experts.

So an assessment: our numbers fall in line with our neighbors and the state. It’s not too surprising. We’d obviously love to see more, and we’re here to answer any questions and point people to where they can get vaccinated if they make that decision.

So how does Chatham compare with its neighbors and the state averages?

Chatham’s percentage seems to be an average of our neighbors. Counties like Wake, Orange and Durham are all above 70% with at least one dose, while Randolph, Lee and Harnett counties are all below 60%. Moore, Alamance and Guilford counties are all right around our percentage. Of the state, 65% of the population has received at least one dose.

If 63% of Chatham County is at least partially vaccinated, then 37% isn’t — and when you factor out those who aren’t eligible or have medical conditions which preclude taking a vaccine, the number of eligible people without at least one dose is probably around 25%. So a question about vaccine resistance, hesitation, opposition — what strategies have worked, and what hasn’t worked, to reach that population?

When developing a communications strategy, you must consider the audience. The people who aren’t getting vaccinated are not a monolith. And while there are a lot of conspiracy theories floating around, they are not the reason for all 25% of those people you’re mentioning. There are folks who have legitimate questions, as mentioned above, about pharmaceutical companies, the relative quickness of the development process and even the involvement of fetal cells from elective abortions. We can’t communicate to all residents the same way. Not everyone has the same beliefs, the same fears or even the same level of internet connection. We must tailor our messaging and our messaging methods to the resident.

We don’t want to be the public health department that shuns those concerns. We must ride a fine line between amplifying misinformation and ignoring it completely. So, we’re trying something.

We recently posted a new FAQ on COVID-19 on our website. This tool answers questions about why we should wear masks even if we’re vaccinated, if anyone has died from the vaccine, and the effectiveness of natural immunity. We picked out the questions based on social media comments on our page and others, as well as things we all have heard throughout the last two years. As I said above, we don’t want to be the public health department that shuns tough questions or ignores valid concerns.

Whether or not our messages reach the population and convinces them, we don’t know for sure. We are confident that we are not the primary source of COVID-19 information for most if not all of Chatham County. There are newspapers like the News + Record, television channels, podcasts, social media channels and so many more avenues for people to get information. But if people come to us, or want to know what we recommend, we want to be ready with accurate information that understands concerns and addresses them honestly.

We’ve also relied on community partners to spread messages, whether that be churches, child care facilities, schools or other places. Survey after survey says that people are more likely to trust COVID messaging from people they trust like family, friends and their own medical provider. We’re grateful to have partners we’ve worked alongside since the pandemic began for their efforts in helping us communicate.

What hasn’t worked — and we’ve done our best to avoid doing this — is guilting people into getting vaccinated. We should be careful not to celebrate someone who is not vaccinated getting severely ill or dying from COVID-19. From a public health standpoint, that is what we work day in and day out to prevent. And any death is a tragedy. A core tenet of good human services, like public health, is that each person has dignity and is worthy of respect and care. We try to meet people where they are at while providing the best public health advice we have. Mocking people for not getting vaccinated or refusing to take their illness seriously is not respect. We can do better. We should do better.

How much misinformation are you seeing and battling within the county?

There is misinformation out there, no question. You can see it on social media. It’s hard to miss because just about everyone is talking about COVID.

A key point here is that we can’t control what people read and consume. We wouldn’t want to. What we can do is provide what is true and make it available to as many people as possible. The most recently example of that for us is our COVID Facts FAQ.

We know everyone is tired of COVID. We are too. There are so many problems that COVID-19 has exacerbated, like mental health and the opioid epidemic, or further exposed, like health inequities and social isolation, that we are working to tackle. Our registered dietitians, Laura Hearn and Ann Clark, have been hard at work over the last year doing practical things in our community to improve nutrition and better lives. We can’t wait to continue that work alongside encouraging folks to get vaccinated and prevent the spread of COVID-19 the best they can.

Let’s shift to testing. Can you run through testing options here, and how the results are looking (from a trend standpoint)?

Over the last couple weeks, Chatham County is averaging around 25% of tests returning positive, according to NCDHHS. That’s slightly lower than the state average of 30.4% and is basically stable from what the rate was a couple weeks ago.

There are several testing options in Chatham County, and you can find a full list at www.chathamcountync.gov/coronavirustesting. There are multiple drive-up options in Pittsboro, Siler City and Goldston, as well as pharmacies and urgent cares across the county. We would encourage everyone who is getting a test to try to make an appointment, but StarMed Healthcare is offering no-appointment testing in Pittsboro on Thursdays from 12-4 pm at CCCC, in Siler City on Mondays from 12-4 at CCCC and in Goldston on Wednesdays from 1-6 pm at the Town Hall.

It’s not surprising that testing numbers are where they are. The Omicron variant is the most contagious version of SARS-CoV-2 yet, affecting both people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated. That’s because the COVID-19 vaccines, like most vaccines, are not 100% effective at preventing infection. They remain incredibly effective at preventing hospitalization and death. Real-world data shows this.

Regarding N95 masks — can you update us about where to find them in Chatham, and whether the CCPHD is providing them?

We are working hard to get additional N95 masks that we can share with the Chatham community. We received around 7,000 masks earlier this month and distributed them to where we felt they were most urgently needed, specifically high-priority locations like meat-processing plants, child care facilities and to other vulnerable populations. Once we are able to get masks to share with the broader community, we will spread the word through our website, social media channels and our other regular means.

Pharmacies like CVS, Walgreens and even Walmart should be receiving N95s in the coming days, or already have them, from distributions from the federal government. We encourage folks to call those pharmacies ahead of time to see if masks are available before going if they are going just to get masks. It’s likely that supplies will go fast.

And finally, it’s the time of year when colds and flu (and symptoms of both) are rampant. If someone’s not feeling well and exhibiting symptoms that resemble those of COVID, what’s your advice?

Stay at home, only leaving to get a COVID-19 test or flu test. With any sickness, it’s always been best practice to stay home to avoid sharing germs or passing the infection on to others. That’s what we’ve always encouraged. If your child is sick, you keep them home so they can rest and get better AND avoid spreading the sickness to other people. The same advice applies here. Also, get a COVID-19 test as soon as possible. It’s best to either rule it out or find out that’s what it is so you can take the appropriate next steps.

Can you share links to the best sources of information about COVID, vaccines, boosters, testing, etc.?

NCDHHS COVID-19 Page

Chatham County COVID-19 Page

Chatham County COVID-19 Vaccines

Chatham County COVID-19 Boosters

Chatham County COVID-19 Testing

Chatham County COVID-19 Facts FAQ: 

As always, people can call us at 919-545-8323 if they have COVID-specific questions. We’re also regularly sharing information on our Facebook page, where you can message us directly.

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