Some NC primary care doctors left frustrated and 'vulnerable' after navigating COVID-19 vaccine process

As many North Carolina counties begin vaccinating the next group, 1B, some primary care doctors are left asking, 'What about me?'

The first rounds of COVID-19 vaccine doses went primarily to health care workers who were most exposed to the virus. Initially, this first group included a lot of hospitals workers and local first responders but slowly expanded to funeral home directors and community health workers.

Answering your questions about when & where you can get a COVID-19 vaccine in NC

Dr. Brian Forrest reached out to the ABC11 I-Team after weeks of not getting answers on when and how he could get a vaccine.

"I think the frustration grew when physicians started hearing stories about drive-in COVID-19 vaccinations happening in other counties in North Carolina for stage 1B, for people over 75, when still we were not able to get our vaccines," Forrest said.

Forrest operates a clinic in Wake County that treats mainly patients without insurance. Throughout the pandemic he has treated COVID-19 patients weekly and recently the number is increasing. He estimated a third of the patients he saw last week were either testing positive or had a positive family member.

"I think the best way to describe how I felt about it was very vulnerable and I definitely want everyone who is super high risk to get vaccinated but right now I feel like for us to be able to do our jobs as physicians and be able to take some of this burden and strain off the hospitals as primary care physicians we need to be protected as well," Forrest explained.

He estimates his clinic helps keep 15-20 people from going to the ER each week.

Where can you get a COVID-19 vaccine in NC? Tracking availability and progress

Some primary care physicians connected with hospital systems have been able to get vaccinated through the hospitals' allotment, but Forrest's clinic is independent.

"One of the questions that we haven't gotten is who is responsible for providing it for the providers," said Forrest.

He isn't the only private practice physician who has had difficulty navigating the process.

Gregg Griggs is the CEO of NC Academy of Family Physicians and has worked with practices to get them vaccinated.

He said both health departments and hospitals have been vaccinating primary care doctors so the answer isn't so clear.

"It's been a little bit complicated but we have to understand that this is ...the greatest vaccine rollout and most complicated vaccine rollout in our lifetime and so yes there have been problems but I think they can be addressed," said Griggs.

A spokesperson for the Wake County Health Department said most health care workers are included in 1B expect for primary care physicians who have an increased risk of exposure.

The county is working to compile a list of independent providers and asking providers to fill out a survey.

Forrest said he filled out the survey and still could not get answers.

"There was some initial confusion around the guidance but what I have been advising if you are routinely caring for COVID-19 patients or testing, you are meeting that criteria," said Griggs.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, Forrest said he was finally able to get a vaccine schedule after weeks of battling for answers, however he said he is still concerned about other doctors who have to navigate the complex process.

Griggs explained it's important to get primary care doctors vaccinated so they can start being a part of the solution.

"We can't vaccinate 10 million people in North Carolina with only a few sites, it's going to take all hands and the logistics of that are difficult," Griggs added.

He said some physicians are getting registered in the state's COVID-19 management system and is hoping most doctor's offices will have the vaccine available by the end of February. He said he is hopeful that if people can get vaccinated from their own doctors it will help decrease any hesitancy they have about the vaccine.

For now, he is urging people to have patience.

"I think people need to realize to some extent we are building an airplane while we fly it. With this and as much preparation as has gone into this we are really in unprecedented times," Griggs said.

For vaccine questions in Wake County, contact their hotline at 919.250.1500 or email covid19.questions@wakegov.com.

To track COVID-19 vaccine availability near you, visit ABC11's Vaccine Tracker.
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