Other voices: State must do better on vaccine rollout

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The push to develop vaccines for COVID-19 was called Operation Warp Speed, but the delivery of two vaccines approved so far might be called Operation Hurry Up and Wait. The delay is especially pronounced in North Carolina, which late last week ranked 42nd in the nation in the percentage of its available vaccines that has been administered: 21.5 percent.

Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said Friday that the rankings fluctuate daily because many state rates are closely bunched. But she said North Carolina’s performance is improving. “The rate of vaccinations has really picked up,” she said.

Much of the blame for the bumpy start belongs to those who allowed the pandemic to explode — President Trump and his senior officials. While the president can take credit for getting a vaccine rapidly developed, his administration bungled the delivery by handing the vaccines to the states and essentially saying: “Don’t look to us for help.”

But North Carolina has made a similar move by handing much of the responsibility for distribution to county health departments and hospitals. Local health departments have been strained by soaring COVID-19 cases and for some the added demands of distributing the vaccines have been overwhelming.

“In North Carolina, it does seem like county health departments are a big piece of the puzzle,” said Josh Michaud, an epidemiologist and a global health expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). “It has been hard to meet the demand with limited health department resources.”

North Carolina, like other states in the South, has also been stymied by resistance to getting the vaccine. A KFF survey released last week found about a quarter of the public is hesitant and the doubts are even higher among Blacks and rural residents.

The slowness of the rollout also reflects the state’s decision to vaccinate the most vulnerable first. Following CDC guidelines, the state began with frontline health-care workers and long-term health facility residents and staff. Some counties are now moving on to the next group, people 75 and older.

Julie Swann, an N.C. State University professor whose research includes health-care supply chains, said North Carolina’s vaccination plan is one of the best in the Southeast. But she said it has taken a more methodical and targeted path — and thus a slower one. Florida, for instance, took a less focused approach by starting with people 65 and older.

“Reaching a priority population takes more time,” Swann said, “but you’ll save more lives.”

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the rollout isn’t so much a shortage of vaccine — that was expected — it’s a shortage of information. Too many North Carolinians don’t know when their turn will come and where they should go to get the vaccination.

Charles Edwards, who recently retired as a logistics expert at NCDOT and now teaches planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said state officials should not be working so much in the dark about who wants the vaccine and how to find them. He said there are databases that can be used to better shape the distribution and keep people informed about their access to a vaccination.

Gov. Roy Cooper needs to assume more leadership in the vaccination effort. He and state health officials should develop a clearer map of the need, allow more flexible protocols for distributing the vaccine and find a way to inform every North Carolinian about where they stand in line and when their time will come.

On a positive note, President-elect Joe Biden said Friday his administration will increase states’ vaccine allotments by releasing all available doses, instead of holding half back to ensure the required second doses are available. He has also promised to provide the states with more funding, equipment and help with logistics. Until then and surely beyond, North Carolina officials will need to be more resourceful and flexible in finding ways to expeditiously get the vaccine — and information about it — to all who want it.

— Charlotte Observer and News & Observer