ALBEMARLE — Stanly County’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is being hampered by three interrelated issues — overwhelming demand by residents, a lack of personnel to answer the phones and a shortage of vaccine provided by the state — leading the county’s health department to delay already scheduled appointments and to put a hold on new ones.
On Jan. 25, the Stanly County Health Department released a statement saying they are “experiencing a shortage of COVID-19 vaccine,” and they will be moving appointments that were scheduled for Jan. 27, 28 and 29 to exactly one week later.
“If you currently have a COVID-19 vaccination appointment on those days,” the statement said, “it is now scheduled to be on the same day and time of the following week.
The county was vaccinating around 225 people per day and trying to work up to 300. But with the delays from the state, Stanly may not get the 1,000 to 1,300 vaccines per week they have been used to. The county’s health director, David Jenkins, told the Stanly County Board of Commissioners, at their Jan. 19 meeting, “it’s a little hazy” what will be provided by the state in the coming weeks. He said North Carolina was only going to receive 120,000 total doses per week, so many of the state’s other 99 counties with much larger populations may get priority.
But the issues are not just on the supply side; thousands of calls per week are pouring into the usually quiet health department office run by Jenkins. To address this high demand, Jenkins told the commissioners his office is moving from two dedicated lines to as many as 12.
“We opened it up to four [lines] today. And we have two additional phones that are in place, so that gives us the capability to have six phones working simultaneously.”
Jenkins also said they are purchasing six mobile phones through Verizon to further assist with call volume.
“So that would give us a total capability of 12,” he said. “Now, whether we’ll be able to get 12 warm bodies to assist with answering that, that’s something we’re working on. But that should certainly cut down on the wait times and allow us to schedule out well in advance, several months in advance as this vaccine becomes available.”
The lines, he said, also allow for callers to be queued up and kept on hold until a live person can answer to get them on the schedule.
“With the vaccination process, we are focusing on our 65-and-older populations, and based on our latest demographics I have, it’s about 11,000 to 12,000 people,” Jenkins said.
Regarding staff resources, a major challenge has been finding people who can not only answer the phone, but who are tech savvy enough to then fill the information into data software. County Manager Andy Lucas said they are trying to find people from other areas of county government to plug into these positions.
Lucas thanked Stanly Community College, saying it is sending volunteers to help with the calls. But while this was helping, he said volunteers can only typically give an hour or two at a time, and they really need to hire full-time workers who are there eight hours a day.
“I don’t know how many phone calls we answered today, but on Friday, we answered 625 calls with three people,” Lucas said. “The call volume is immense. So when people say, ‘I can’t get through,’ well, we have 11,000 people trying to make a phone call to get a vaccine.”
To add to the workload, after each vaccine is given, the data has to be added into a federal “Central Vaccine Management System,” so those managing the national rollout will know how much each state needs and states will know how much each county needs.
Lucas said some counties have given out thousands of doses but did not enter them into the CVMS, so they won’t be getting the resupply they expected.
“We don’t have vaccine just rolling up to the back of the building. It’s very coordinated — from the federal to the state all the way to the county level,” Lucas said. “I think it’s important for citizens to understand some of this; our folks are working extremely hard to try to make it better and to try to get these shots into arms as quickly as possible.”
As of Jan. 25, the county reported 99 new cases, 24 hospitalizations and 109 total deaths due to COVID-19 to date.
The Stanly County COVID-19 vaccine hotline number is 980-323-0205, but due to the shortages, the health department has put a hold on new appointments until further notice.