The Moore County Health Department expects to receive larger shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine as part of a statewide push to ensure equitable access to shots in marginalized communities.
On Thursday, the agency announced that it will be getting 200 additional weekly 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 doses.
“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 of the Carolinas, said her 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 in an interview on Wednesday. “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 for that vaccine 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.”
O’Linda Watkins, president of the Moore County NAACP, believes health officials can address concerns about the vaccine’s safety in marginalized communities through education. One way to accomplish this, she said, is by doing “contactless literature drops” in historically Black communities and by distributing information to churches and businesses that serve those communities.
“I don’t think there’s any problem with getting older people on board, but the younger ages are telling me they want to be more educated about the potential side effects,” Watkins said in a recent interview with The Pilot. “I think that education is definitely key when it comes to reaching younger people because they’re scared. A lot of them are pointing to Tuskegee and things like that.”
She was referring to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, an unethical science experiment in which 600 Black men in Alabama were denied treatment for the disease while doctors studied its long-term effects. The study ran for 40 years and was conducted in part by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Rev. Javier Castrejón of San Juan Diego Mission in Robbins has heard similar concerns from members of his predominately Hispanic congregation. “They think the vaccine is an experiment,” he said in a recent interview.
Health care professionals, people in long-term care facilities and all adults aged 65 and older are currently eligible for vaccination. Eligibility will be expanded to most educators and child care workers across the state beginning Wednesday.
Writing in a news release, the Moore County Health Department said it plans to “exhaust the extra doses” from the state by scheduling vaccination appointments for eligible individuals who are “listed as racial and ethnic minorities” in the county’s pre-registration system.
Residents are added to the system after calling the department’s vaccination hotline or completing an online form. But the agency only began collecting race-level information through its online portal on Thursday, and multiple people familiar with the phone-based process have told The Pilot that callers are not ordinarily asked to identify their race or ethnicity.