THE CN+R Q&A: MIKE ZELEK, CCPHD

Ch@T: Health Department’s director talks vaccination frustrations, successes

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Mike Zelek, the director of Chatham County’s Public Health Department, and his staff have been working non-stop to provide information to county residents about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. In this exclusive Q&A with the News + Record, Zelek addressed mass vaccination events, vaccine appointments and more.

Where do things stand today in Chatham County with the COVID-19 Vaccination Rollout?

So far, 5,491 Chatham County residents have received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the NC DHHS COVID-19 vaccination dashboard. Vaccinations are currently being given by Chatham Hospital (UNC Health), the Chatham County Public Health Department (CCPHD), and Piedmont Health Services, but vaccine supplies are very limited.

The CCPHD held its second mass vaccination clinic on Monday at the Chatham County Agricultural and Conference Center, during which 410 adults ages 65 and older and healthcare workers with in-person patient contact were scheduled to be vaccinated. After this event, the CCPHD will have given out all of the 1,500 first doses of vaccine it has received to date.

No doses of vaccine allocated to the CCPHD have gone to waste.

Providers learn each Thursday night how many doses of vaccine they will receive the following week. For example, the CCPHD learned last Thursday that it would only receive 200 first doses of vaccine next week. Providers across the state, including many local health departments like the CCPHD, were disappointed with the number of doses they are slated to receive, which is currently the limiting factor in vaccinating those in the eligible groups. We have tentative plans to host mass vaccination events multiple times per week, but those plans depend on allocation.

In Chatham County, there are approximately 20,000 residents who are eligible to receive the vaccine as the NC DHHS prioritization criteria expanded to include adults ages 65 and older. We are unable to say at this time how long it will take to get through the current groups, as this will depend on our allocations, which vary from week to week. We know many are eager to get the vaccine, and we are eager to provide it to them. We are very sorry that the limited number of doses, as well as the uncertainty of allocations, causes frustration and confusion. That is why we are encouraging residents in the eligible groups to pursue all options for vaccination, including:

• UNC Health is offering the COVID-19 vaccination for individuals ages 65 and older, including at its site behind Chatham Hospital in Siler City (Medical Office Building) and nearby options such as Chapel Hill. Interested individuals can visit unchealthcare.org/schedule or call (984) 215-5485 to schedule an appointment when available.

• Duke Health, based in Durham, is also scheduling vaccinations when available. To learn more, visit dukehealth.org/covid-19-update/covid-19-vaccine-update or call (919) 385-0429.

• For a full list of options in North Carolina, visit covid19.ncdhhs.gov/findyourspot.

What does it take to host mass vaccination clinics?

Mass vaccination clinics are truly a team effort, with many staff from the Public Health Department, Emergency Management, Sheriff’s Office, County Manager’s Office and Chatham County Agricultural and Conference Center working with volunteers from the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), other county departments, and the Chatham community to carry them out. We are utilizing staff from across the department in new roles to make vaccine distribution as smooth, effective and equitable as possible.

Our Health Promotion & Policy team has been coordinating the COVID-19 Vaccine Infoline and call center, along with leading communications efforts and reaching out to diverse Chatham communities to increase uptake and access across the county. Environmental Health staff have helped to plan the mass vaccination clinics, ensure the clinics are conducted as safely as possible with social distancing in place, and check in staff and volunteers. Our Clinical and Community Health Services team not only administers doses of the vaccine but has scheduled appointments and managed shipments of the vaccine. Our Administration team has been responsible for the overall coordination of vaccination efforts, including financial management, and has provided support for many of the tasks necessary to carry out these events. Volunteers have managed traffic control and staffed the medical observation station, and Emergency Management has overseen the logistics of these mass vaccination events. These are just a few examples of how staff and the Chatham community are working together to carry out this process

I am so proud of and grateful to all involved for their public service. Many have worked weekends and late into the night to respond to this pandemic. We know this is taxing on our team that has taken on so much over the past year, and we are also emphasizing the importance of staff taking care of themselves and each other. One of my messages to our staff at our first clinic was to look out for each other. This has been a stressful time for many, and we are not immune to this stress. We do our best to take care of each other, support one another, and encourage all to reach out for help when it is needed.

How has the process evolved over the past few weeks?

This is an unprecedented event and the greatest public health intervention we have faced. Much goes into getting vaccination efforts up and running before the events take place.

This includes responding to the hundreds of requests from the public we receive each day, and establishing an Info Line, a call center, online scheduling, and contact list for those interested in getting vaccinated. Staff have worked diligently over the past several weeks to get these systems online, which has been a major undertaking, especially taking into account a recent cyber incident affecting county departments that knocked out our network, phones, and computers until late December. We are grateful for the support we have received from Emergency Management, the County Manager’s Office, and the Management Information Systems department.

We are now capable of hosting multiple mass vaccination clinics each week, but this depends on allocation. We, along with providers across Chatham County and North Carolina, hope that allocations will increase in the weeks ahead so that we can get our communities vaccinated against COVID-19 as quickly as possible.

Availability of COVID-19 vaccine, like the supply of testing kits and personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, remains limited. This is why NC DHHS has established prioritization criteria for the vaccine that all providers are required to follow, but the current supply of vaccine is not enough to get to all in the eligible groups as quickly as we would like.

Because of this point in particular, we are asking people who have reached out to us through our online vaccine tool or by phone to please be patient. If you have done so, you are already being added to our list to contact as appointments become available. This list has grown to several thousand people, and it will take time to reach everyone on it, especially given the limited number of doses we are receiving. We continue to encourage our residents to pursue the other local vaccine providers listed above.

We are also working to reach communities that may be missed through traditional communication channels. We know that some are hesitant to get the vaccine, so we are sharing information through presentations, outreach, and our website to address these concerns. We also know that some communities, including historically marginalized populations, are more likely to distrust the medical system due to historical injustices and systemic racism, and will continue efforts to reach these communities throughout this process.

How have changes in the prioritization guidance — North Carolina is currently on its third iteration — affected vaccination efforts?

When the state updates vaccine prioritization criteria, we update ours accordingly. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned to be flexible and adapt to changes that come our way. We will continue to follow the state’s guidance and work with our partners to get shots in arms as efficiently, effectively and equitably as possible.

That said, changes to the prioritization criteria that lead to more residents becoming eligible for the vaccine, such as expanding eligibility from adults ages 75 and older to ages 65 and older, are not necessarily accompanied by increases in the number of vaccine doses available. Since January 15th, when adults ages 65 and older became eligible to receive the vaccine, our contact list has grown from a little over 1,000 to close to 10,000 people. This is why we are asking residents to be patient and continue to share information of additional vaccine providers as well.

Who is involved in the Public Health Department’s vaccination efforts and how are they holding up?

Like the pandemic itself, the process of vaccine distribution has been a complex endeavor. But I can’t say enough about our staff, our partners, and volunteers. Staff have put other projects on hold or added this to their plates to make this a success, and I could not be prouder. We have many excellent partners who have been working with us on vaccine planning for months. Without these partners, we couldn’t take on such an historic effort.

They include Chatham County Emergency Management, the Chatham County Manager’s Office, Chatham County CERT, Chatham Hospital, UNC Health, Piedmont Health Services, the Chatham County Council on Aging, the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office and many others.

Throughout the pandemic, we have relied on many in the Chatham community to support response efforts. The vaccine rollout has been no different. We’re seeing the best of Chatham County in this very challenging time, and that is why we remain optimistic and confident that this will be a success despite these challenges.

What’s the best way for someone in Chatham County who meets the eligibility criteria to make a COVID-19 vaccine appointment?

Both the CCPHD and UNC Health, including locations in Siler City and Chapel Hill, are providing the vaccine.

For the CCPHD, the easiest and most efficient way to be added to our list is to fill out our online Vaccine Information Tool at chathamnc.org/vaccinetool. Those who register will be contacted by email or phone when appointment slots open up, and also informed of other vaccination options in the community. They do not need to follow up by phone or email to confirm. We appreciate their patience as vaccine supply remains extremely limited. Staff are currently adding information from hundreds of voicemails to the list that were left on the Info Line as well. We must work through these voicemails before we can accept new phone messages.

Chatham County residents can also get the COVID-19 vaccine through UNC Health, including locations in Siler City and Chapel Hill. To make an appointment with UNC Health, visitunchealthcare.org/schedule or call (984) 215-5485. For a full list of options in North Carolina, visit covid19.ncdhhs.gov/findyourspot.

Is Chatham County only giving vaccine doses to Chatham County residents?

No. Since the vaccine is federally-funded, all COVID-19 vaccine providers must administer to individuals living outside their jurisdictions. We’re focusing our outreach and communications efforts on the Chatham community, but we encourage residents to consider all options available to them.

Is there anything else you would like the Chatham community to know?

We would like to thank the Chatham community for its support, understanding, and patience. So many have offered to volunteer and help to make this a success, and we have relied on many of these volunteers to carry out mass vaccination clinics. We are so grateful to our volunteers and partners, without whom this would not be possible.

While the vaccination process will take time, we will continue to work diligently, alongside our partners, to make it as efficient and equitable as possible. Thank you for your support, and please remember that COVID-19 remains as much of a threat as ever. Keep practicing the 3 Ws, wearing your masks, and avoiding gatherings beyond your household. The pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, but the Chatham community will get through it together.

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