North Carolina ramps up COVID-19 vaccine outreach before Group 4 becomes eligible Wednesday

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- As North Carolina prepares to expand eligibility to part of Priority Group 4 beginning Wednesday, they are continuing outreach efforts into those who are currently able to get their shots.

"We should not put up barriers to getting vaccine appointments. The internet is not for everyone, phone lines can work, but we need not to have wait times of 45 minutes, an hour long. That doesn't serve people. So as we get more vaccine, we have to ramp up. We have to work with our communities - make this available at churches, make this available at county health departments, make this available for drive-thrus. That's happening, we just have to do more of it. and with more vaccine, we can more of this. You can't do an event when you don't have vaccine," said Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease expert with UNC Health.

Overall, Dr. Wohl believes the state is doing a good job with administering doses as they work to balance equity, explaining that is a point of focus should they have extra doses.

"As we have two or three different vaccine (versions) in one day, that means you might have a vial with a couple extra doses in one vaccine batch, and then another and another, so it multiplies. So (we) just have to be careful. We have a great system where we look for people in the area, businesses who qualify. We don't want people showing up saying, 'Hey, I'm here for the extra.' That's not a fair system. So we're trying to really be equitable, and have the right ethical way to approach access," said Dr. Wohl.

Governor Cooper bumped up the timeline for frontline essential workers to get their doses by a week, though some still face difficulties accessing appointments.

"We're doing a lot of work with occupational health and actual employers. So being able to do vaccinations at work sites, so people don't have to leave their work site. We're asking our employers to provide transportation or time off for employees to be able to go to vaccination sites," said Dr. Betsy Tilson, the State Health Director and Chief Medical Advisor for NCDHHS.

Part of those efforts also revolve around marketing vaccine availability, with a growing number of pharmacies throughout the state now able to give doses. Last week, one pharmacist told ABC11 he encouraged people to sign up for as many waiting lists as possible, to try and give yourself a better chance of finding an open appointment.

"The providers are getting really, really efficient. We want (providers) to run as fast as possible, so as soon as we hear from providers, 'Yeah - my waitlist is slowing down a little bit, we're having a little bit less of a demand,' then we want to be able to open up those gates so they can run as quickly as possible," said Dr. Tilson.

Priority Group 4 will be the state's largest thus far, and health officials are urging people to be proactive in scheduling before more people become eligible.

"When you have priority, if you don't take it at the time you have it, you may have to wait in line, you may have to wait for the other people who are clamoring for the shot as the same time as you," said Dr. Arthur Apolinario, the co-chair of the North Carolina Institute of Medicine COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Board.

The state has released public service announcements and publicized vaccinations of high-profile individuals in an effort to increase confidence in the vaccine; Dr. Apolinario believes there's another, effective way that is helping ease some hesitancy concerns.

"I had a lot of reluctant patients at first, but now that they're seeing the safety, now that they're seeing a few days of side effects after a second dose is nothing compared to what they're experiencing with COVID, that's what's really getting the word out, that the vaccines are really working," said Dr. Apolinario, who also serves as a family practice physician in Clinton.

Publicizing changing priority groups is also key, as the state has twice moved up the timelines for when people can receive their doses.

"(We're) really thinking about language barriers, and making sure that people who don't speak English as their first language know where vaccines are available and be able to have help. So we're doing a lot of work with our community health workers, and community-based organizations that can really reach into our historically-marginalized populations," said Dr. Tilson.

Last week, the state topped 400,000 total doses for the first time, exceeding their previous high-mark by more than 10,000 doses.

"I still implore people in healthcare, people who are frontline workers, anybody who is in the first four phases - get your shot now so you don't get lost in the mix," said Dr. Apolinario.

Determining how the state is faring compared to other states is difficult, as metrics and reporting times lag and differ. For example, Becker's Hospital Review ranked the state 29th in percent of distributed doses administered, at 80%. However, NCDHHS reported they have administered 97% of doses that have arrived in North Carolina, though they noted providers could get an extra shot out of vials which boosts the numbers. In late February, the Kaiser Family Foundation ranked North Carolina first in vaccinating those 65 years and older.

Through Sunday night, 12.3% of North Carolinians are fully vaccinated, slightly above the national average of 11.5%.

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