All of the metrics are going in the right direction according to the Moore County Health Department. COVID-19 cases have trended down and over 16,600 Moore County residents are now fully-vaccinated.
“We have had no wasted vaccines since we started this project,” Robert Wittmann, director of the local health department, told the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
He anticipated 600 Moderna vaccines would be administered this week in addition to an unexpected allotment of 300 Pfizer vaccines transferred to Moore County from FirstHealth of the Carolinas following a special event scheduled by the hospital.
“We will use them between all of our partners,” Wittmann said, noting no vaccines would be returned to the state.
Wittmann also reported that a complete tabulation of all deaths in Moore County that list COVID-19 as a cause, dating back to March 18, 2020, will be completed by the end of this week.
For months, the Moore County Health Department’s official tally of coronavirus-related deaths has lagged behind the number of fatal infections recorded on death certificates, making it difficult for residents to know the true toll of the pandemic.
The Moore County Board of Health, the entity that oversees the department, voted last mont to address the delay by changing the agency’s process for counting deaths. The health department is now expected to publish weekly reports of COVID-19 deaths based on death certificates, which are typically available within days of an individual’s passing.
“This has taken us a little longer than hoped," Wittmann said. "But with no COVID deaths since my last report to you and, hopefully, that will still be true when we get all these tabulated."
Wittmann’s comment was not accurate. During its previous presentation to the board on March 2, the Moore County Health Department said 166 residents had died of COVID-19. The department was reporting 172 deaths on Tuesday evening.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is reporting an even larger death toll. According to that agency, at least 182 fatal infections are linked to the county.
Wittmann acknowledged there is some vaccine hesitancy particularly in underserved populations. Wittmann said the health department continues to address these concerns through various outreach efforts. Nationwide there have been no deaths associated with COVID-19 vaccines.
Vice Chair Louis Gregory, who serves on the Board of Health, expressed his appreciation for the work of the local health department, FirstHealth and the military assistance received as part of the vaccine distribution plan.
“It has been very organized and professional, and I want to say thank you,” Gregory said.
Wittmann responded that he had put in a formal request to the Air National Guard for assistance through April and May. The intent is to use the six-person strike team “to go out into the community once we have sufficient vaccines to do that.”
Matt Garner, public information officer for the health department, noted the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) established a mass vaccination site in Greensboro, with the potential to distribute up to 3,000 vaccines a day.
As of March 16, more than 26,000 Moore County residents have received a first-dose vaccine. This count includes shots received by area residents at clinics located outside of Moore County.
Garner said with the state moving to Group 4 eligibility, the local health department has extended vaccine clinic hours on Wednesdays, in addition to Saturday hours, to accommodate working adults.
“The numbers are absolutely moving in the right direction,” Garner said.
County Chairman Frank Quis marveled at the speed at which the vaccines were developed and distributed, as the county crosses the one year anniversary of the first reported positive case of COVID-19.
“Remarkable is good, miracle is another word,” Wittmann responded, noting the federal government’s Operation Warpspeed program and involving the private sector by providing incentives and no risk were critical to its success.
“For the first time in this country, you’ve got the manufacturers working together to share information. Before it was a competitive thing,” Wittmann said.
Vaccine manufacturers also worked together to ramp up production efforts to increase efficiency and capacity.
“I consider that a miracle. I’ve never seen anything in my entire life in public health move this fast,” Wittmann said, adding that the military, U.S. Postal Services and private carriers like UPS and FedEx were also enlisted to help distribute vaccines. “All that proprietary information opened up and we are reaping the benefits of that. I am proud to be a small part of these efforts because it is historic, it really is.”
“I’d like to think by the end of April we may have turned a corner on this,” Wittmann said. “If things keep going the way they are, I’d say the Fourth of July, I’d like us to be independent of this scourge and have a celebration. I’m ready for a parade.”
“We’ll make you the Grand Marshal,” quipped Quis.