Glimmer of Hope

Published 6:30 pm Friday, December 18, 2020

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With COVID-19 vaccines recently receiving approval for use in the United States, health departments and hospitals across the country and here locally are developing plans to begin distribution.

“ARHS (Albemarle Regional Health Services) has received word from the state that, upon FDA approval of the Moderna vaccine, we are scheduled to receive approximately 4,000 doses in our eight-county region that will be allotted for Phase 1A [see prioritization schedule below] as early as next week, the week of December 21,” said R. Battle Betts, Jr., ARHS Health Director.

ARHS covers eight counties in the northeastern part of the state, to include Bertie, Gates, and Hertford. Betts said ARHS is collaborating with local hospital partners Sentara Albemarle Medical Center and Vidant Health to prepare for the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in the region.

A prioritization schedule, developed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and other experts, was released by the North Carolina Department for Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) to guide vaccine distributors throughout the state.

That plan is divided into four phases with the people at the highest risk getting the first doses.

Phase 1A includes health care workers who interact with COVID-19 patients (doctors, nurses, EMT/paramedics, home health workers, and more) and long-term care staff and residents (those residing in skilled nursing facilities and in adult, family, and group homes).

Phase 1B includes adults with two or more chronic conditions that put them at high risk of complications (cancer, COPD, serious heart conditions, sickle cell, Type 2 diabetes, and more); adults at high risk of exposure, including essential frontline workers (police, food processing, teachers, childcare), health care workers, and those living in prisons, homeless shelters, migrant and fishery housing with two-plus chronic conditions; and those working in prisons, jails and homeless shelters (no chronic conditions requirement).

Phase 2 includes people in congregate living facilities without chronic conditions, frontline workers without chronic conditions, healthcare workers not included in phase one, education staff, adults over age 65, and adults under age 65 with one chronic condition.

Phase 3 includes college students, workers in critical industries not included in Phase 1 or 2, and K-12 students (once vaccines are approved for children).

Phase 4 will cover the remaining population.

Northampton County Health Department Director Andy Smith reported they would follow the distribution plan from NCDHHS. He did not have an estimate yet on how long it would take to vaccinate all of the county’s population.

“NCDHHS and local health departments across the state are putting out messaging and directly informing individuals that fall into each group,” he said in regards to the different phases.

Back in October, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners approved a proposal for the health department to purchase a mobile trailer which will help make vaccine distributions easier. The trailer was paid for from the county’s share of COVID relief funding.

Smith said that when the vaccine is available to everyone and supplies aren’t limited, they intend to utilize the mobile trailer throughout the county so residents will not have to travel very far.

“The COVID-19 vaccine is a two-dose vaccine and all individuals should consult their primary care provider if they have concerns and/or questions about the vaccine,” he explained. “The COVID-19 vaccine, just like other vaccines, provides antibodies to protect an individual from contracting the particular illness.”

He noted that vaccine trials have shown a 94-95 percent prevention rate.

Betts said the vaccines are completely safe and effective in preventing COVID-19, noting that more than 70,000 people volunteered in clinical trials for two vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna) to see if they are safe and work to prevent COVID illness. Temporary side effects like sore arms, tiredness, and feeling off for a day or two after receiving the vaccine have been reported. These temporary reactions were more common after the second vaccine dose.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two shots a set number of days apart. Individuals need two doses to build up strong immunity against COVID. The second shot will come about 3-4 weeks after the first. It is important to get two doses of the same vaccine.

Betts said there would be no cost to receive the vaccine.

“It is the goal of ARHS and our partners to ensure that all individuals who need and desire the COVID-19 vaccine have access to it across the region,” Betts stated. “The best way to fight COVID-19 is to first start with vaccinations for those most at-risk, then reach more people as the vaccine supply increases in 2021.”

ARHS officials said that once the vaccines are more readily available, individuals would be able to receive it at ARHS local health departments, by health care providers in hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies as well as at vaccination events in prioritized settings and in the community.

Betts said with guidance from NCDHHS and CDC, ARHS is prepared to focus on the logistics required to receive and administer vaccines to prioritized populations.

Vidant Health received its first shipment (3,900 doses) of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine earlier this week and began immunizing its frontline team members across the system starting Thursday.

“The vaccine offers incredible hope for our health care workers, families, friends, neighbors and the world,” said Dr. Michael Waldrum, CEO, Vidant Health. “While this is a monumental step in overcoming the pandemic, we do not yet know when the vaccine will be available to the broader community.”

Vidant has full confidence in the products that have come to market and highly advocates that the public get vaccinated when the vaccines are available to the general public. Furthermore, Vidant stands ready and available to partner with state agencies as plans for vaccine deployment evolve over the next few months.

In addition to the vaccine, Smith also stressed the importance of continuing to follow current safety guidelines in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

“Individuals should continue to practice social distancing, wash hands frequently, and wear their mask. All of these, along with the vaccine, can hopefully bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control,” he said.

The federal government is determining the number of COVID-19 vaccines each state or jurisdiction will receive initially. The amount of vaccine sent to states will change over time based on who should be vaccinated first, COVID-19 vaccine production and availability, and the size of the state’s population. It is expected that more vaccine will become available as time goes on.