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Rowan health director answers questions about COVID-19 vaccinations

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Rowan County Health Director Nina Oliver on Wednesday outlined the county’s plan to distribute the vaccine and answered questions from the community during a virtual Q&A Zoom session.

Oliver said the county anticipates its first shipment of the vaccine on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. Conversations with the state officials are ongoing.

North Carolina received its first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine Monday, but Oliver said the state chose 11 hospitals to begin administering the vaccine. None of those hospitals are located in Rowan County.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Gov. Roy Cooper said the state won’t receive information from the federal government regarding the next vaccine shipment until Friday, with another supply anticipated on Monday. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said the state expects to receive about 175,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, if approved, with more than half going to long-term care residents and staff.

The number of vaccine doses sent to each of North Carolina’s 100 counties is based on population.

Oliver anticipates the county will receive a shipment of the Moderna vaccine, which doesn’t require ultra-cold storage like the Pfizer-BioNTech that’s currently being distributed. The FDA is reviewing data on the Moderna vaccine’s efficacy this week, but the Moderna brand is likely to be approved for an emergency use authorization later this week.

Additionally, at this time, vaccines will not be permitted for people younger than 16 years of age.

What are the phases of vaccine distribution?

Vaccine distribution will be separated into phases of prioritization due to the limited supplies that will be received at first. Health care workers at high risk of exposure and long-term care residents and staff, both in phase 1a, will be the first groups of people to be vaccinated. Hospital systems will primarily be in charge of administering the vaccine to health care workers, which includes emergency management services staff, first responders, nurses, physicians, respiratory techs, dentists, hygienists, nursing assistants, environmental services staff, paramedics, home health workers, personal care aides, health care trainees and students, morticians/funeral home staff, pharmacists and health care cleaning staff.

CVS and Walgreens, in conjunction with the federal government, have formed “strike teams” to get the vaccine to long-term care residents and staff.

“This is something that has to be distributed, because it’s a pandemic, worldwide and then across our nation,” Oliver said. “We have to prioritize those doses based on the highest need.”

Next on the list, or phase 1b, are adults at high risk of COVID-19 complications along with a select group of adults who are either older than 65 or have two or more chronic conditions that could exacerbate a case of COVID-19. Adults at high risk are prioritized based on their risk of exposure, while the other subset of population in this group could include migrant farm and fisheries workers in congregate housing, incarcerated individuals, homeless shelter residents, frontline workers and health care workers not included in the first phase.

“Many of our citizens and residents have these types of high-risk conditions,” Oliver said. “A large portion of Rowan County will fall in phase 1b.”

In the second phase, are groups of adults without two or more chronic conditions, education staff, other adults aged 18-64 who have one chronic condition and those aged 65 or older with one or no chronic conditions.

Phase three will include essential workers not vaccinated in the first two phases along with K-12 and college students. The fourth phase includes everyone else.

Where will the vaccine be distributed in Rowan County?

“Once we move to phase 1b, that’s when you’ll see the point of dispensing site to open up,” Oliver said.

Oliver explained that a point of dispensing site is a place that has already been designated in the county for the local community to receive vaccines — West End Plaza, located at 1935 Jake Alexander Blvd. West. That site was designated in November 2019 based on a flu pandemic exercise that included collaboration with the county health department staff, local law enforcement, emergency management and the American Red Cross.

“It’s very applicable to what is going on right now even though COVID is not a flu,” Oliver said, “but we will be getting it out in that fashion.”

The West End Plaza was chosen due to its large space being able to accommodate an influx of people and for its ability to serve as a drive-thru location. As of now, five lanes will be open to the public, with local law enforcement assisting traffic flow, but three additional lanes can be opened if needed.

Will there be a screening process at the point of dispensing site to determine eligibility for people that may have come too early?

Oliver said county health officials will work closely with local media outlets and post information to social media to keep the public updated on when it’s their turn to be vaccinated and what they’ll need to bring to the dispensing site. Those details will also include which chronic conditions apply to the particular phases.

“When we start to move through the phases, we will be very clear and very detailed on who is included in that phase,” she said.

But while county health officials will conduct quick screenings, they will primarily rely on the “honor code” as they can’t spend a lot of time determining someone’s eligibility.

Is there any costs for the vaccine?

“There is no cost. It is free to everyone,” Oliver said. “The government and (counties) want to make sure it is accessible to everyone that wants it.”

Are you required to receive the vaccine?

The vaccine is not a requirement.

However, some employers require workers to take the flu vaccination each year — such as those who work in health care, for example. Similarly, Oliver said, some employers may make the COVID-19 vaccination a requirement. So, the decision to take the vaccine will be between the employee and their employer.

Will two doses be required for both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccine? If so, why?

Both brands of the vaccine require two doses. Pfizer-BioNTech requires a second dose 21 days after the first dose, while Moderna requires a second dose 28 days later.

Oliver said county health officials will provide those who receive the vaccination a “reminder card” and reminder email to remind them when it’s time for their second dose.

She added that the three- and four-week span allows the body time to build antibodies that will fight the virus.

“We really stress that people come back for their second dose,” she said. “While there is some data on the first dose giving you a little bit of immunity to COVID-19, the second dose is what does the full immunity that we’re looking for.”

Are there any restrictions on receiving the vaccine after testing positive for COVID-19?

Oliver said county health officials will screen people with the typical list of COVID-19 questions before administering the vaccine, but she strongly recommends anyone who’s feeling ill or who has COVID-like symptoms to stay home or get tested.

“We would not recommend you get the vaccine until you feel better,” she said.

Are there any known immediate reactions or side effects from the virus? If so, how will those be monitored? Are there any long-term side effects?

Data has shown the vaccine to be “very safe” with very few reactions, Oliver said.

However, all vaccines can result in reactions such as minor pain at the injection site, redness, warmness and soreness of the arm.

Oliver said she’s only heard of two cases where someone went into shock after receiving the vaccine.

“If that occurs, we will have onsite EMS who will be there to assist with any health-related issues,” she said.

Additionally, there will be a system where people can report any reactions they experience, but details are still being determined for that system. The county currently has such a system for all vaccines with the county health department.

Will there be cancelations for vaccine distribution due to inclement weather?

Oliver said the county will do its best to avoid any cancelations for distributing the vaccine, particularly since the dates of second doses are so important. But the county will work with emergency management services as inclement weather arrives.

Will the vaccine give me COVID-19?

Unlike vaccines years ago, Oliver said, live viruses are no longer used for vaccines. The COVID-19 vaccine uses synthetic mRNA, or genetic information, to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The spike protein is the part of the virus that attaches to human cells, and it alone cannot cause COVID-19.

Oliver said the body will recognize the vaccination as a “dead virus,” and the immune system will be stimulated to form antibodies, or “little soldiers,” to fight the real virus when it enters the body.

“It can either fight off the real virus, or the alive virus, and you don’t even know it,” Oliver said. “Or you could possibly have symptoms or become sick with the real virus but your symptoms are much less than if you were infected without the vaccine in your system.”

Oliver said that’s why health experts urge people to take the vaccine, especially those who are at higher risk of COVID-19 complications and have chronic conditions and weakened immune systems.

Are there any specific medical conditions someone may have that would prevent them from receiving the vaccine?

Oliver said every pregnant woman will need to talk with their doctor before receiving the vaccination.

Will there still be a need to practice the three Ws?

“It is still highly encouraged that you still follow the three Ws,” she said. “Remember, while the vaccine is our ultimate weapon and provides the most protection, it’s not 100%.”

How will testing look during vaccine distribution?

Oliver said some testing will be offered, but it won’t take place every day while the vaccine is being distributed. The county will continue to provide testing schedules.

Locals can also ask any additional questions to county health officials about COVID-19 via email at COVID-19@rowancountync.gov, or call the hotline at 980-432-1800.

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