State diverts vaccine supplies to metro areas; change is on the way

Phil Drake, owner of Drake Software, offered his call center to the health deparment when their phone systems became overloaded with hundreds of calls from people seeking vaccine appointments.

Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer

The sign at the entrance of health department on Monday relayed the news that vaccine supplies were depleted.

If the Coronavirus has taught us anything it is to be patient, but lately it seems that patience is wearing thin. Folks have patiently waited in their homes under quarantine, waited during the safer-at-home mandate,  waited for stores and restaurants to open up and waited in line to get a COVID test and then waited for the results.  More recently people are waiting to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and there is much confusion throughout the community regarding the supply, vaccination sites and the timeframe in which to get it. 

Vaccine rollout program well underway in Franklin and Highlands

The Macon County Health Department (MCPH) administered its first COVID-19 vaccine to  Dr. Donald Dewhurst who received the Moderna vaccine on Thursday, Dec. 31. The vaccine was first made available for healthcare personnel directly responding to COVID-19 and long-term care facilities. Residents over 75 were also added to this list and recently the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) opened the availability to folks 65 and older. Here is where patience is once again required.  In order to get the vaccine one has to register with the Health Department, fill out a short questionnaire, and then wait for an appointment. As with all new programs there are always glitches. Macon County Health Department Director Kathy McGaha explained to the county commissioners at a meeting a few weeks ago, that the high volume of calls coming into the Call Center by folks wanting to register for the vaccine, overloaded the phone system and caused the system to go down. The system was down, off and on for three days. Macon County IT and leadership immediately began looking at alternative options and making plans to move the Call Center to an offsite location on a separate phone system. This, coupled with the fact that they were only administering the vaccine two days per week, added to the lengthy wait.  

Drake Software offers services of Call Center

The call center is staffed with both paid agents and volunteers. Kim Green and Mandy Bewick are on the job at the call center.

Local businessman Phil Drake heard about the situation at the Health Department and on Jan. 15, he met with the COVID Leadership Team  to see how he could assist with the phone overload issue.  The leadership team consists of Sheriff Robert Holland, Emergency Management Director Warren Cabe, County Manager Derek Roland, and McGaha. 

The following day, Drake opened a COVID call center in the Drake Education Building, to help with the abundance of calls that the Health Department had been trying to handle. He staffed the call center with 10 agents from Drake Software’s call center to help get folks registered with the county in order to get their vaccine. The team took 357 calls that day to get folks registered. The intent was to run the call center for a week while the Health Department got a new phone system set up. The health department ultimately asked Drake to extend the use of their call center, which they did.

The following Monday the call center was staffed with personnel from the county along with some volunteers. They had 10 people manning the phones Monday through Friday. The call center went from using the website, to filling out forms and completing the questionnaire, which cut a few days out of the process. On Monday, Jan. 18, the call center took 315 calls, 234 the following day, 236 on Wednesday, 227 on Thursday and 175 on Friday. Outbound calls to folks who had previously left voicemails were also made.  

“All our calls are answered within two seconds and each call lasts approximately 4 minutes and 11 seconds,” said Terry Breedlove, vice president of I.T. at Drake.   

The call center is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. They have now expanded the call center to 25 workstations. The center is now staffed with Health Department personnel along with volunteers. When callers schedule an appointment for the first vaccine they are also given an appointment for the second vaccine dose, which is given four weeks later.  Anyone in Group 1 or Group 2 can get an appointment for the vaccine. (Group 1 consists of healthcare personnel directly responding to COVID-19 and long-term care facilities and Group 2 is for those 65 and older).  The phone number for the call center is (828)524-1500 for vaccinations and (828)349-2517 for COVID testing appointments. When supplies allow, vaccines are being given five days per week at the Health Department on Lakeside Drive. 

Pharmacies looking to jump on the bandwagon

There is more good news on the horizon about alternate sites offering the vaccine. Several local pharmacies have now jumped on the bandwagon to offer to assistance with giving the vaccine, much like they do the yearly flu shot. Although Ingles Pharmacy has a waiting list and is not accepting any more appointments, slots will be opened up when the vaccine becomes more readily available – the first shipment of which has not arrived.  

Smart Pharmacy is also in the process of applying to the state to give the vaccine.   Jacob Reiche, owner of Smart Pharmacy, says he is in the process of completing the massive amount of paperwork that would allow him to give the vaccine at his pharmacy. He is hopeful that when he finally gets the approval, Johnson and Johnson will have had their vaccine approved for emergency use also. He would like to use Johnson and Johnson because it requires only one dose and can be stored at refrigerator temperatures instead of the ultra cold needed for the Pfizer vaccine.  He is also hoping to be in his new location near the Senior Center in late February or Early March. Reiche also said that he will not have a waiting list. As the vaccine allotment arrives in his facility he will schedule the appointments according to how many doses he receives. Walmart is not currently offering the COVID-19 vaccine.

As to whether or not Walgreens in Franklin will offer the vaccine, O’Conner Campbell, Walgreens Account Supervisor, said, “Walgreens is providing COVID-19 vaccinations to vulnerable populations as determined by states and jurisdictions, and vaccinations are currently being administered at select Walgreens stores in limited quantities according to state and jurisdiction distribution plans,” and that the vaccines will be available in all of Walgreens more than 9,000 store locations, once they become available for mass administration. Campbell anticipates a mass effort to begin in the spring.

Vaccine doses trickle into Macon County

So why are folks still having long waiting times to get the vaccine?   

State Sen. Kevin Corbin said that members of the General Assembly are getting calls from county health directors, hospital leaders, and constituents about problems with the COVID-19 vaccine distribution. 

In a statement on Jan. 23, he said it is his understanding that N.C. gets a weekly shipment of 120,000 first dose vaccines from the federal government. N.C. has proven to be one of the slowest states in the country to document vaccine distribution due to “data lag” or a delay in entering the data.

Corbin believes that an effort to move N.C. up in the vaccine distribution rankings resulted in the scheduling of two mass vaccination events at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and another the following week at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

NCDHHS has also designated about a dozen sites that have done a good job of quickly administering larger allotments and entering data into the DHHS system.

Of N.C.’s 120,000 first dose shipment, 40,000 doses were diverted to the Charlotte Motor Speedway vaccination event.

Because of that diversion, every vaccine site received fewer doses and many locations received zero doses. Macon County was scheduled to get 2,250 doses of vaccine and scheduled appointments for 2,250 people and then were told they are only getting 200 doses. The other 2,050 doses were diverted to Mecklenburg County. 

“That is unacceptable. We are talking about first dose vaccines here, not second doses. The second dose shipments are supposed to mirror the first dose shipments from 3-4 weeks prior (depending on if they are Pfizer or Moderna vaccines). In other words, if your county received 100 Moderna vaccines four weeks ago, it should receive 100 second dose Moderna vaccines this week,” said Corbin.

NCDHHS plans to move the dial back towards “an equitable geographic distribution” following the two mass vaccination events in Charlotte.

Some lawmakers, including Corbin, sent letters to the governor and the secretary of Health and Human Services expressing their concern about vaccine distribution.

“The decisions about the vaccine have been made entirely by the Department of Health and Human Services without input from the legislature. This week we will express our desire for more equitable distribution to our rural areas,” said Corbin.


Highlands holds its own clinic

The Town of Highlands sponsored a COVID-10 vaccine clinic a few weeks ago.  Emily Ritter with MCPH said that it was put togehter by an outside organization and set of partners that had nothing to do with MCPH, though MCPH was able to provide them with guidance regarding vaccines and vaccine storage. At the direction of NCDHHS, Hospital Corporation of America (HCA- owner of Mission Health)  transferred 500 Moderna doses to MCPH for use at Highlands’ first clinic. 

“These doses were supposed to be given to hospital staff and first responders and did not come from the MCPH’s 200 doses,” said Nancy Lindell,  Mission Hospital Director of Media Relations.   

According to Dr. David Ellis, Chief Medical Officer, Pardee Hospital in Transylvania County, at the request of NCDHHS, Pardee transferred 500 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Macon County Public Health on Jan. 23. At that time, Henderson County and Pardee UNC Health Care were vaccinating Groups 1 and 2 – individuals over the age of 65 and health care workers.

Robin Austin, one of the volunteers at the Highlands clinic said that, “the clinic was staffed by 150 volunteers from a consortium in the community, and organizations such as the Rotary Club.  The vaccine was given to those who had appointments. We managed to vaccinate 480 residents during the first clinic and 476 in the second clinic. Those folks who were vaccinated on Jan. 20 with the Pfizer vaccine will be able to receive their second dose on Feb. 14 and those who received the Moderna vaccine on Jan. 24 have appointments for their second dose on Feb. 17.”  

Tom Neal, CEO of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, was among the volunteers at the clinic, although Highlands-Cashiers Hospital was not directly involved with the vaccine clinic. Neal said to remember that between the time of getting the first shot and getting the second shot people can still contract the virus, so continuing to wear a mask and practicing the three W’s is still necessary.  Highlands has a separate call center, also staffed with about 60 volunteers. Their number is (828)526-1310 and they are open six days per week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Right now there is a wait list of about 900 people. 

More vaccine doses on the horizon

North Carolina will soon be receiving 140,000 doses weekly (after the federal government committed to increasing shipments to each state by 16%) to be distributed throughout the 100 counties in the state. MCPH has received 200 first doses per week since Dec. 31,  and has vaccinated 2,515 people as of Feb. 1. They will be receiving 300 first doses of the vaccine each week for the next three weeks, while Clay County will receive 100 per week and Jackson County will receive 400.  The number of doses received is based on population size.  Hospitals are given separate doses of the vaccine for their staff and they do not come out of the MCPH doses. As of Monday, Feb. 1, MCPH had no vaccines in its inventory, but received 400 doses on Tuesday.

“Right now there is just not enough vaccine supply to have an additional vaccine site. This is certainly something we are looking at when our supply increases,” said Ritter.  “Angel Medical Center’s first priority needs to be caring for their patients. A number of Macon County employees are now helping with efforts like phone center staffing and operating vaccine and testing clinics, departments like EMS, Emergency Services, and the Sheriff’s Office are assisting in efforts.  This is all in addition to National Guard members who are assisting with everything from paperwork to giving vaccinations.”  

Ritter also stated that with every first dose they receive,  they receive the corresponding second dose.  Residents began receiving their second dose on Thursday, Jan. 28.

About the vaccines  

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine contains the following ingredients: messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), lipids (SM-102, polyethylene glycol [PEG] 2000 dimyristoyl glycerol [DMG], cholesterol, and 1,2-distearoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine [DSPC]), tromethamine, tromethamine hydrochloride, acetic acid, sodium acetate, and sucrose.

The Pfizer Vaccine contains mRNA : messenger ribonucleic acid, mRNA is the only active ingredient in the vaccine.  It also includes (4-hydroxybutyl) azanediyl) bis(hexane-6,1-diyl) bis.

(2-hexyldecanoate), 2 [(polyethylene glycol)-2000]-N,N-ditetradecylacetamide. 1,2-Distearoyl-snglycero-3- phosphocholine. and cholesterol.

The mRNA molecules contain the genetic material that provide instructions for our body on how to make a viral protein that triggers an immune response within our bodies. The immune response is what causes our bodies to make the antibodies needed to protect us from getting infected if exposed to the coronavirus.  

The Moderna and the Pfizer COVID19 Vaccines have not been approved or licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but has been authorized for emergency use by FDA, under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), to prevent Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID19) for use in individuals 18 years of age and older. There is no FDA-approved vaccine to prevent COVID19. Do not take the vaccine if you are allergic to any ingredients in the vaccine.

No adverse reactions have been reported from people getting the first dose (aside from injection site tenderness), but some of the people who have gotten the second dose have reported mild flu like symptoms (body aches, fever, headache) that last anywhere from 24 to 48 hours.  The flu-like symptoms are a signal that the body is building up antibodies to the virus.

Waiting list for vaccine growing

Because of the unreliability of the vaccine shipments, appointments that have previously been made have been cancelled and moved to the waitlist. 

“We cancelled all current appointments in an effort to be fair to all that had already been scheduled,” said Ritter. “Those individuals are being contacted over the next week to have their appointment rescheduled, those who had their appointment canceled will be given the opportunity to schedule appointments before others on the waitlist.” 

Rescheduling began on Monday. Those people who have second dose appointments will still be able to get their vaccine on their originally scheduled date. 

As of 2020, the population of Franklin is 3,980 with 18% of residents being over 65. Highlands population is 1,164 with 35% of residents being over 65. In all, more than 35,000 full time residents live in Macon County, with many waiting patiently to be able to get the vaccine. As the vaccine doses trickle into the county more and more residents in Group 1 and 2 will be getting vaccinated. Once Group 3 opens up to colleges, university and high school students 16 or older, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine may be available;  therefore, increasing the amount of vaccine able to reach the community.  Group 4 makes the vaccine available to anyone who wants it.