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‘Meet the need’: Rowan County Health Department looks to add to vaccination options

By Josh Bergeron

josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com

When eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations opened to anyone older than 16 last week, the Rowan County Health Department faced a few questions.

Why were so many doses left unclaimed in the same week any adult could be vaccinated for COVID-19? Were people unaware they could be vaccinated? Had people decided to wait until an undetermined point in the future or already made up their mind that they weren’t going to be vaccinated?

“If we had the answer to that, we would be millionaires,” said Emergency Services Division Chief T.J. Brown.

The county received 1,170 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to administer at its weekly drive-thru clinic on Thursday, but only 822 doses were claimed. If they weren’t defrosted, those doses won’t go to waste because Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that aren’t removed from the freezer can stay for months in cold storage.

Whatever the reason for the leftover vaccinations, interim Health Director Alyssa Harris says the county may be approaching a “saturation point” for the current method of distribution and need to add other methods.

“I think this is a great setup,” Harris said about West End Plaza’s weekly drive-thru clinics. “It really makes it easy, in and out. It can be very quick. So, it’s great when we have a big rush, but now it’s time for public health to meet the need and go out into the community.”

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services says nearly 31,000 people who live in Rowan County are partially vaccinated for COVID-19. That’s about 22% of the population. Of those, about 21,600, or 15.2%, are fully vaccinated, which requires a second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and only one shot of the Johnson & Johnson variety.

Rowan County’s percentages for first and second doses repeatedly have been among the worst in the state. On Friday, just five counties had lower percentages of their population partially vaccinated than Rowan County — Robeson, Cumberland, Hoke, Harnett and Onlsow. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Orange, Hyde and Dare counties — all of which have greater than 46% of their residents vaccinated.

Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll, said education level is a major determining factor for whether people want to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. In a statewide poll released last week, Elon University found 55% of respondents with a bachelor’s degree or higher have already been vaccinated and 24% said they intend to. By comparison, 31% of people without a bachelor’s degree said they are already vaccinated and 25% said they intend to.

Republicans are somewhat less likely than Democrats to be vaccinated, but Husser said partisan affiliation is not as much of a determining factor for COVID-19 vaccinations as positions on other, major social issues. Thirty-four percent of Republicans in Elon’s poll said they were already vaccinated and 20% said they intend to. That compares to 47% of Democrats who are vaccinated and 29% who intend to.

People who live in suburban counties are more likely to be vaccinated than people in urban and rural counties, Elon’s poll found.

High Point University and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services also released public polls last week that asked about COVID-19 vaccines. Both found a majority of North Carolinians have already received or intend to receive a COVID-19 vaccination at rates that approach herd immunity — 69% in the state’s poll and 64% in High Point’s poll.

“The good news is that the vast majority of North Carolinians want to get vaccinated and will recommend to their family and friends that they do the same,” Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said. “We are focused now on making vaccination easier for everyone.”

People who are “on the fence” are more likely to find themselves in “already vaccinated” categories than those who have made up their mind not to do so, Husser said. The NCDHHS poll, for example, found just a 4% change from November to March in the percent of people who said they probably or definitely won’t receive the vaccine. The vast majority of people who say they will not receive the vaccine have worries about side effects or don’t think COVID-19 is a major problem, Husser said.

Vaccine hesitancy may play a role in Rowan County’s vaccine surplus last week, Harris said. It’s also possible people weren’t aware it was their turn to receive a shot.

Husser said it was notable that Elon’s poll found 93% of people who received the COVID-19 vaccine were happy with the decision. Harris says people who get vaccinated are the best “ambassadors” for those who haven’t yet done so.

“We will lean on our community to share their experiences, to encourage friends and family to get vaccinated,” she said. “I was the second at the Health Department to get vaccinated back in December. So, my parents watched me and they saw nothing crazy happened to me.”

To help answer questions for people who may be unsure, the Rowan County Health Department and United Way are planning informational sessions at local businesses. Harris says employers will hold clinics that will be another critical part of getting people vaccinated.

Livingstone College on Saturday will become one of those employers when the Rowan County Health Department will provide 12 people and 800 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for Livingstone staff, students and any member of the community who’s interested. Parking for the event will be in off-campus lots, with golf carts shuttling people to the college’s gym. To sign up for the Livingstone clinic, people can call the Rowan County Health Department’s COVID-19 information line at 980-432-1800 and select option No. 1.

Anthony Davis, Livingstone College’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, called the vaccination clinic at the school an “unprecedented opportunity” for students, faculty and staff as well as historically marginalized populations nearby.

For more information on Rowan County’s COVID-19 vaccination clinics and to sign up for an appointment, visit rowancountync.gov/1671/First-Dose-Clinics. The Health Department regularly holds first dose clinics on Thursdays. For other local vaccination options, visit yourspotyourshot.nc.gov.

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