Following a tour of one of Moore County’s COVID-19 vaccination sites on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson said he would advocate for more shots needed to inoculate the area’s large population of older adults.
People 65 and older are currently prioritized for vaccination in North Carolina. But serving this group is a difficult undertaking in Moore County, where senior citizens account for nearly a quarter of the population.
“If they’re getting a thousand doses a week here, just vaccinating those folks 65 and over is going to take forever,” said Hudson, a Republican whose district includes part of Moore County. “We’ve got to continue to ramp up the supply and try to get more supply here, but also look for more efficiencies in where we’re getting out.”
Hudson was visiting the Fair Barn in Pinehurst, one of three vaccination sites in the county. Doses are administered at the venue during semi-weekly clinics overseen by FirstHealth of the Carolinas.
“This is a great setup and you can see they put a lot of thought into it,” Hudson said of the location. “It gives me a lot of confidence that our folks here know how to get this job done. We just have to get them enough doses to get out.”
At the Fair Barn, FirstHealth’s top officials shared concerns about vaccine supply with the congressman.
“One of the things I heard today and I’m hearing in other counties is let’s expand who’s giving these shots,” Hudson said. “Let’s have all of our pharmacists and even look at health care groups that can do it. Just having a couple of locations doing a thousand doses a week is not going to get us there, so we’ve got to continue to push.”
The Moore County Health Department is administering shots at its office and at the neighboring agricultural center in Carthage. Mickey Foster, CEO of FirstHealth, said additional sites will be needed to adequately serve the county’s 100,000 residents.
“One of the opportunities we see is over time, with just the amount of people that live in Moore County, we need other sites to do vaccines,” Foster said. “It’s got to be more than just the hospital and the health department ultimately, right? Part of the key is we’ve got to have multiple sites for this.”
But there is still a limited amount of doses to go around. Hudson said that both Republicans and Democrats agree that federal funding must increase to secure more vaccines.
“The disagreement in Washington now is the Democrats want to borrow $2 trillion and not spend it on getting shots in arms,” he said. “The Republican position has been let’s figure out where the needs are, where the gaps are, and put the money there instead of just borrowing a whole bunch of money and throwing it against the wall.”
He added: “You can get bipartisan agreement on spending more money to get more vaccines and on reopening schools. There’s a lot of things I think there’s a lot of bipartisan agreement on. We’ll keep pushing and keep trying to be a voice of common sense in all of this.”
Push for Equity
The Moore County Health Department expects to receive larger vaccine shipments as part of a statewide effort to ensure that marginalized communities have equitable access to shots.
On Thursday, the agency announced that it will be getting 200 additional doses from the state over the next three weeks to “address racial and ethnic vaccination disparities.”
Data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services show that only 6 percent of shots administered locally have gone to Black residents, who make up about 12 percent of the county’s population. Hispanic residents, who account for about 7 percent of the county’s population, have received less than 2 percent of the shots.
“We continue to work with our community partners here in Moore County to engage our communities of color and encourage vaccination,” Robert Wittmann, director of the local health department, said in a statement. “We want to ensure equity and provide our historically marginalized populations with access to these safe, effective vaccines.”
Roxanne Elliott, a policy director for FirstHealth, said the company has been working to assuage concerns about the vaccine’s safety among individuals in marginalized communities.
“I know that there’s some misinformation out there, so we’re doing anything we can do to encourage people that the vaccine is safe,” Elliott said. “We have not seen any adverse reactions in the thousands that we have vaccinated.”
Both vaccines currently authorized for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration require two shots to be fully effective. The period of vulnerability between those doses, Elliott said, has exacerbated some patients’ misgivings about the vaccine.
“We've seen some people who have had the first vaccine and then they came down with COVID between the first and the second,” she said. “You’re not fully vaccinated until you receive that second shot, and even then it takes 14 days. We’re just making sure that people understand how that process works because we don’t want people to think the vaccine gave them COVID when it didn’t.”
A third vaccine candidate developed by Johnson & Johnson requires only one shot and does not need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures like the currently available vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. The FDA is expected to review clinical trial data submitted by Johnson & Johnson next Friday.
“That would be a big game-changer, especially if it doesn’t have quite the same requirements as the Pfizer vaccine,” said Dr. Jenifer Bruno, chief medical officer for FirstHealth. “If that’ll bring more vaccines in and can be distributed to primary care practices, more pharmacies and other places, then we can get a lot more people vaccinated.”
Outbreak Hits Jail
A total of 7,699 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Moore County since the start of the pandemic.
Over 700 of those infections were reported in February alone, with at least three recent cases linked to an outbreak announced Friday at the Moore County Detention Center. An inmate and two of the jail’s employees tested positive this week, according to the sheriff's office.
DHHS defines an outbreak as two or more active infections in a so-called congregate living facility. But two cases can easily lead to many more, as seen at local nursing homes and assisted living communities that have been ravaged by the virus.
In a news release announcing the outbreak, the Moore County Sheriff’s Office said the infected inmate and detention officers all tested positive this week. The inmate has been quarantined from the jail’s general population, according to the sheriff’s office.
"This inmate’s positive test marks only the sixth time since the onset of the COVID pandemic that a Moore County inmate has received a confirmed positive test,” the agency said in a statement. “To date, all inmates who have tested positive have been asymptomatic and have recovered completely.”
When an outbreak is declared at a facility, all residents and staff members must undergo weekly coronavirus testing. An outbreak is considered to be concluded only after a facility goes 28 days with no evidence of continued transmission.
DHHS lists places with ongoing outbreaks in an online report that is updated twice a week with the latest available data on cases and deaths. The report, which was last updated about 4 p.m. on Friday, does not yet include the Moore County Detention Center, but it does list seven of the county’s nursing homes and four assisted living communities with ongoing outbreaks.
Seven coronavirus-related deaths were added to the Moore County Health Department’s official count of fatal cases on Friday, bringing the agency’s tally to 164 deaths. Six of the newly announced deaths involve residents older than 75 who died amid outbreaks in long-term care settings.
The health department has struggled for months to provide timely death announcements to the public. Indeed, three of the deaths announced Friday happened back in December.
DHHS is reporting a higher number of COVID-19 deaths for Moore County. The agency said 170 residents have perished from the disease.