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Ask Us: COVID-19 vaccination events have required adaptations, brought frustration

Editor’s note: Ask Us is a weekly feature published online Mondays and in print on Tuesdays. We’ll seek to answer your questions about items or trends in Rowan County. Have a question? Email it to askus@salisburypost.com.

To help sort out logistics for an operation that will eventually serve tens of thousands, county staff last week turned to the city of Salisbury’s Traffic Engineering Department and the N.C. Department of Transportation.

During the first large, drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination event Monday, Jan. 11, the county found traffic to be more chaotic than expected, said Emergency Management Division Chief T.J. Brown. Cars lined up in a way county staff hadn’t envisioned and traffic backed up onto Jake Alexander Boulevard.

The solution, Brown said, was a serpentine pattern through the parking lot of West End Plaza — where drive-thru vaccinations are being held — that more efficiently moved the large number of cars. The pattern seemed to work well when implemented Thursday, he said.

“That was one of the things we were able to glean through the first run on Monday that we were able to apply on Thursday,” Brown said.

The N.C. Department of Transportation also provided electronic message boards that communicate vaccine-related information.

Another lesson: Cars were left waiting for hours during the first drive-thru only to learn there weren’t enough vaccinations. So, Brown said, workers on Thursday asked people questions to determine eligibility and provided first-come, first-served tickets for those who met criteria like age.

“We understand how frustrating it can be to wait in a long line and then be turned away for vaccine,” Brown said.

Since the county began drive-thru vaccinations, readers have asked a number of vaccine-related questions — from logistics to eligibility.

Vaccine eligibility — particularly whether those 65 and older can now be vaccinated — was one of the most-asked questions. That’s because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced early last week states should offer the vaccine to anyone 65 years and older and to people under 65 who have comorbidities — conditions that increase chances for a severe case of COVID-19. Two days later, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced vaccine providers could serve anyone older than 65.

“With today’s announcement, vaccine providers who are ready may vaccinate adults 65 years and older and health care workers, which will be followed by frontline essential workers, then adults with high risk of exposure and increased risk of serious illness, then everyone,” the state said in its news release.

Following the guidance, Rowan County Public Health Director Nina Oliver said drive-thru vaccination events held by the Health Department would use the 65-year-old threshold. The county has already updated its COVID-19 website to reflect that change.

While there were previously numbers and letters used to denote different vaccination phases, the county and state have simplified things.

The vaccination phases are now as follows:

• Phase No. 1: Health care workers and long-term care staff and residents.

• Phase No. 2: Adults older than 65, regardless of health or living situation.

• Phase No. 3: Front-line essential workers such as first responders and teachers.

• Phase No. 4: Adults at high risk for exposure and increased risk of severe illness, which includes people with conditions such as diabetes, those who are incarcerated or living in a group setting and essential workers not yet vaccinated.

• Phase No. 5: Everyone who wants a vaccine.

The county is currently vaccinating people in Nos. 1 and 2.

As for the next drive-thru vaccination date, the Rowan Health Department is encouraging people to stay tuned to the county’s coronavirus website for announcements — rowancountync.gov/covid-19.

Community Health Manager Alyssa Harris said the Health Department is planning for Wednesday, but that date depends on when the next vaccine allocation arrives — a point of frustration for those hoping to provide as many vaccinations as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“Supply chain is still a serious issue for us,” Harris said, noting that the Rowan Health Department receives an allocation from the state with short notice about the number of doses included.

Last week, the county vaccinated roughly 800 people through its drive-thru events at a rate of about 150 per hour. However, U.S. Census data show more than 25,400 individuals older than 65 in Rowan County — leaving a lot more vaccines to be desired. That number doesn’t include frontline and patient-facing health care workers, which adds to the total, Harris said.

“We are doing everything in our power to make vaccine distribution smooth by offering a drive-thru clinic, which really is the best option for getting as much vaccine out as possible in a short amount of time,” she said. “Our biggest hurdle right now is the amount of vaccine we are receiving. We have put in requests to the state and are in frequent communication letting them know that our citizens are ready and deserve the opportunity to be vaccinated.”

People can be vaccinated for COVID-19 in a county where they don’t live.

Harris said she is optimistic an initiative by Novant Health to set up six vaccination sites across the state will help Rowan residents. The health care system is asking for 95,000 doses per week across its footprint. However, Novant Health has not yet stated where it will open the six vaccination sites.

Readers asked the Post how long to expect to wait in a drive-thru line to receive a vaccine. The answer depends on when the person arrives and how many others are also in line. But it’s likely to be a few hours.

Brown said people showed up hours before the 9:30 a.m. start time on Thursday — many before the sun rose. Workers at the drive-thru vaccination saw people with blankets, pillows, iPads for watching movies and books.

For multiple reasons, Brown said county officials are asking people not to arrive before 6 a.m. He also recommended people bring something to occupy their time while sitting in the drive-thru line, go to the bathroom before arriving and make sure their car has enough gas. In cases where it’s necessary, Brown said, there will be bathrooms available.

Asked about the conglomerate of agencies helping administer vaccines, Brown said there are representatives from the N.C. Department of Transportation, city of Salisbury, Rowan County Health Department, EMS and a range of county staff, including law enforcement. Workers from the Health Department are preparing and administering vaccines as well as processing paperwork at West End Plaza.

Harris said there are volunteer opportunities for people who want to help with the county’s vaccination efforts.

Those interested in volunteering or with any questions about COVID-19 can email the Rowan County Health Department’s address for coronavirus at COVID-19@rowancountync.gov. Information is also available by calling the Rowan County Health Department COVID-19 hotline at 980-432-1800 (press one for vaccine information).

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