Featured photo: Dr. Pamela Oliver receives the COVID-19 vaccine (photo courtesy of Novant Health)

The coronavirus vaccine will be administered to individuals aged 75 and over starting Wednesday in Forsyth County. While officials with Novant Health and the Forsyth County Public Health Department confirmed that they start rolling out the vaccine this week, their counterparts in neighboring Guilford County said they would be starting on Jan. 11.

For the past few weeks, the state has been in Phase 1a of a vaccine rollout in which frontline healthcare workers and long-term care facility staff and residents are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the NC DHHS website, so far 63,571 people have received their first dose of one of the COVID-19 vaccines; none have been administered both as of yet. The next phase, 1b, includes adults aged 75 years or older and frontline essential workers over the age of 50. Within this phase, those aged 75 years and older will be given priority as group 1, and then group 2 includes healthcare workers who were not vaccinated in Phase 1a as well as essential workers who are over the age of 50. Frontline essential workers as defined by the CDC include first responders like police and firefighters, education workers, public transit employees, grocery store workers and postal workers.

According to the NC DHHS website, vaccines for the next group of individuals — those 75 years and older — are scheduled to begin as early as the week of Jan. 11 statewide. Dr. Pamela Oliver, the executive vice president for Novant Health and the president of the Novant Health Physician Network told Triad City Beat the hospital system is poised to start administering the vaccine Wednesday. The Forsyth County Health Department also put out a notice to start vaccinating on the same day. On Tuesday afternoon, the Guilford County health department put out a notice that they too would be vaccinating individuals in Phase 1b starting on Jan. 11.

“This is the most complicated, complex vaccine rollout in history,” Oliver said. “And there are still a lot of unknowns, but we’ve been working and are prepared to transition to patient vaccines by the middle of this week.”

Still, she said that she has no idea how many doses of either vaccine they will be receiving. Each vaccine has specifications for how it needs to be stored, and the vaccine sites will have to take that into account, she said.

Right now, Oliver said Novant is working on identifying eligible patients within its own network and contacting them through their patient portals. The hospital system is also working with the Forsyth County Public Health Department to help vaccinate other individuals in the group who have never been to Novant. In addition to alerting patients through Novant patient portals, the hospital group will be sending out letters and potentially call patients to let them know about their eligibility.

The timeline of vaccine rollout to the general public (screenshot from NCDHHS website)

As of now, Oliver said the plan is to have patients come to an outdoor location at a Novant facility to receive the vaccine. Because they have to monitor patients for 15 minutes after administering the shot, vaccinating isn’t as easy as drive-through testing.

“It’s pretty standard for most vaccinations,” Oliver said. “It’s rare for people to have vaccine side effects… but the reason why we watch people for 15 minutes is for the rare percentage of people who have anaphylactic reactions. They are rare, and it’s usually the situation that causes that, not the vaccine.”

Oliver, who was vaccinated about two weeks ago, said most patients can expect regular side effects that they would see from any shot. Things like soreness at the site of injection and possibly some fatigue and low-grade fevers.

After patients receive their first dose, they will have to return to get their second dose and depending on which vaccine they receive, that timing will be different. If it is the Pfizer vaccine, patients should return after three weeks. For the Moderna vaccine, patients will get their second injection after four weeks.

“There is a slim window,” Oliver said about the timing between doses. To ensure patients return, she said healthcare workers will be helping patients to schedule their second appointments on-site.

The Forsyth County Public Health Department is publicizing that individuals 75 and older will be able to get vaccinated through the county starting Wednesday. Those interested should call 336.703.2081 to set up an appointment.

Public Health Director Joshua Swift said it’s important for individuals to make their appointments and keep them because of the limited number of doses they are receiving.

“We want to make sure when we go somewhere, we know who’s coming and how many people are coming,” Swift said about setting up vaccination sites. “We want to make sure we have enough and once you puncture the vial, you have to use it that day.”

Last week, Forsyth County received about 2,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Swift said the number of doses received varies from week to week, making planning for vaccine rollout difficult.

“The supply is growing but there are more and more people who need the vaccine,” Swift said.

According to the NC DHHS website, the state is currently working on an online COVID-19 Vaccine Management System allowing members of the public to register and make appointments to get the vaccine.

What about Guilford County?

In neighboring Guilford County, a press release by county officials stated that they would start vaccinating people 75 and up starting on Jan. 11.

The notice stated that individuals interested in getting vaccinated should call to make an appointment at 336-641-7944, Option 2 starting this Friday. Appointments are required, the release read, and walk-ins would not be accepted.

The release also stated that those who qualify for vaccination in Phase 1a should “check in with their employers on how to receive a vaccination.”

The locations for the vaccinations are as follows:

  • Greensboro Coliseum Complex, 1921 Gate City Blvd., Greensboro
  • Mount Zion Baptist Church, 1301 Alamance Church Rd., Greensboro
  • High Point University Community Center at Oak Hollow Mall, 921 Eastchester Drive, Suite 1230, High Point

Doug Allred, the spokesperson for Cone Health, said that the hospital system doesn’t know when enough doses will be in hand to begin Phase 1b.

“Presently there is not enough COVID-19 vaccine for everyone 75 and older to be vaccinated at once,” Allred wrote in an email to TCB. “We expect vaccines to arrive over the coming weeks. We don’t know how much and how soon.”

Joe McCloskey, the senior local/regional media relations manager for Wake Forest Baptist Medical system, another large hospital network in the Triad with hospitals in Winston-Salem and High Point, also expressed a lack of clarity about the process in a recent email. When asked when Wake Forest Baptist would start vaccinating individuals in Phase 1b, McCloskey responded that “at this time, it’s unclear what that process might look like” and that “the timeline on rolling it out to the general public is being coordinated by the state.”

How the vaccine works (screenshot from NCDHHS website)

Confusion about vaccine rollout is not unique to local county health departments or hospitals systems. In other counties across the state, a rush to get vaccinated has caused phone lines to be overwhelmed and confusion within patients.

In Wilson County, phone problems and an overwhelming response complicated vaccine rollout to seniors on Monday, according to an article by WRAL.

On the Forsyth County Health Department’s webpage, a note urges individuals calling to set up an appointment to be patient.

Swift said it’s understandable that the process is confusing and taking a while to sort out.

“This is a long process,” he said. “What we’re seeing is nationwide…. All 3,000 counties in America and however many hospitals are going through this process at the same time…. It’s going to take a while to get enough people vaccinated to get herd immunity, but we’re taking that step closer one day at a time.”

Who’s next?

After all individuals in Phase 1b — those aged 75 and up, frontline essential workers and remaining healthcare workers — are vaccinated, the state will move into Phase 2 which includes adults at high risk of exposure and at increased risk of severe illness. According to the NCDHHS guidelines, that includes the following individuals in order: those aged 65-74 years regardless of health status or living situation, anyone aged 16-64 with high-risk medical conditions such as cancer, serious heart conditions, sickle cell disease, Type 2 diabetes and more. Then anyone who is incarcerated or living in other close, group-living settings would be eligible followed by all other essential workers who have not yet been vaccinated, including those who work in transportation, logistics, food service, banks, media and public safety to name a few. Phase 3 moves into students which includes both college and university students as well as K-12 students aged 16 and over. The current vaccines have not yet been approved for children under the age of 16. Lastly, Phase 4 will include anyone else who has not yet been vaccinated and wants to be.

Oliver of Novant Health said that she hopes that everyone opts to get the vaccine and that even those who contracted COVID-19 in the past should still get vaccinated.

“It’s exciting to think about,” she said. “this vaccine shows promise for 2021. We want our community to trust the vaccine and the technology and the science used to develop this vaccine. We need people to embrace this is as our opportunity to end the pandemic.”

To learn more about when you’ll be eligible to get the vaccine look for updates on the NCDHHS website here. For the Forsyth County Public Health Department’s website go here. Visit the Guilford County Public Health Department’s website here.

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