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RSS superintendent, Board of Health discuss strategies for increasing student vaccination rates

SALISBURY — With only a few weeks left before schools let out for summer break, the Rowan County Board of Health discussed ways to improve vaccination numbers among students during a meeting Tuesday night.

Tony Watlington, superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury School System and a new member of the Board of Health after joining Tuesday, said vaccinating students is among his chief concerns. Although numbers have gone down in the past few days, the school system recently saw a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases and students quarantining.

Watlington doesn’t want a similar scenario to play out once students return to classrooms in a few months.

“I’m really concerned because if we don’t increase the vaccination rates well before August, I just want to be sure we’re not in the same position with a lot of parents wanting to keep their kids out of school because of the increase in quarantine rates,” Watlington said.

He added that a bill being proposed in the state legislature would limit school districts to only five “remote days,” unless the district is designated as a virtual school.

Such a bill, combined with the potential for large numbers of students quarantining due to COVID-19, could create a dilemma for a school system attempting to return to some semblance of normal learning.

“There will be some real pressures on the school districts when we try to return to five days of instruction in August if those vaccination rates don’t go up,” Watlington said.

Currently, only people 16 and older are eligible for the vaccine in North Carolina, but that could change soon after the Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for use for ages 12-15. Interim Health Director Alyssa Harris called the FDA’s approval “step one.” She said the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will give its recommendation on the vaccine to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention today, which would be the final green light needed.

“Everything that we are hearing is that we should expect individuals who are 12-15 to be eligible and be able to receive that vaccine starting Thursday,” Harris said.

She said the Health Department is working with Novant Health and Salisbury Pediatrics to get that doctors’ office on board as a provider. 

“We will be actually requesting giving that inventory of vaccines to share with them because Pfizer does require the ultra-cold freezer that they don’t have access to,” Harris said. “They’ll be a great partnership for us.”

Putting vaccines in the hands of the primary care doctors for teens and children, Harris said, will be critical to getting that demographic vaccinated.

“They have that relationship with the patients, which we are seeing is so important right now for folks, to actually get and take the vaccine is to get it from a trusted source,” Harris said. “As much as we’re a trusted source, seeing or hearing it from a physician is one of those driving factors.”

Harris said the Health Department is working to formulate a marketing campaign that encourages teens and children to get vaccinated by focusing on the concerns of their parents.

Watlington pledged the support of the Rowan-Salisbury Schools system in any such campaign, offering “robocall” capabilities to send out public service announcements. Commissioner and Board of Health member Judy Klusman suggested the Health Department and school system work together to create marketing campaigns centered around children’s sports teams.

Watlington said he loved the idea and commented that positive peer pressure could be a good tool to improve vaccination rates.

In other meeting business:

• The Board of Health unanimously approved the Health Department’s proposed fiscal year 2021-22 budget. The department’s budget projects $3.96 million in revenues and $7.58 million in expenses. The department’s budget receives ultimate approval from the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. The budget, while mostly finalized, does not include funds for two new environmental health inspector positions requested by the Health Department. Nor does it include the COVID-19 funding the department will receive from the federal government or expected additional grants.

• Environmental Health Supervisor Adrian Pruett provided an update to the board on the status of both food and lodging and inspections, as well as onsite wastewater inspections. Although the department is still searching for another food and lodging inspector, Pruett reported that the department performed 118 inspections in April, up from the 79 inspections completed during April of last year. Pruett said the department is four weeks behind on onsite wastewater inspections, which must be performed for the installation of septic tanks, but credited the wait time to the influx of applications currently being received. Pruett said that neighboring counties are similarly behind, if not more so. Pruett also reported he has split the county into north and south regions, using I-85 as a dividing line and has appointed onsite inspectors to one of the two regions. By splitting the county in half, Pruett said inspectors will have less ground to cover and there will be more consistency.

• The Board of Health moved into a closed session to discuss a personnel-related issue included in a report presented to the board by Fred Pilkington, who was recently hired as a consultant to review the Health Department’s internal operations.

• Besides Watlington, Mary Ponds was also inducted onto the board during Tuesday’s meeting. The  former mayor of Granite Quarry and Watlington were both approved by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to fill seats representing the general public.



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