Frightened, frustrated and irritated

Published January 21, 2021

By Tom Campbell

The great gift this Christmas was that help was on the way. The vaccine was a welcome gift 10 months into the pandemic. It is no exaggeration that North Carolina’s vaccination rollout started poorly.
DHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen described our current status as “the most dangerous time yet,” with as many as 10,000 new cases in 24 hours and hospital beds nearing capacity. Many are frightened; most have family or friends who have had COVID.
“You’ve got a spot, take the shot,” was the catchy slogan encouraging people to be vaccinated when it was their turn. North Carolina is allocated 120,000 doses of vaccine, enough to vaccinate about 1 percent of our 10 million population each week. But the vaccines weren’t getting into enough people’s arms. In mid-January the Center for Disease Control estimated only 32 percent of our supply had been used for shots.
North Carolina adopted a delivery system that involved county health departments and hospitals as vaccinators. In an effort to equitably distribute the vaccine all 100 counties received some. When the announcement was made that those 75 and older could get shots it was like dropping the starting flag at the Charlotte 600 race. The numbers multiplied even more after the age was dropped to 65 plus.  
What ensued was frustration, as those eligible sought an appointment. The DHHS dashboard announcing who was going to vaccinate in each county involved some computer literacy to wade through the maze of providers in each county. Messaging from those providers was less than satisfactory. From Sunday through Thursday, I visited all sites in my county two or three times per day, only to get messages saying no appointments were available or none were being scheduled. I finally got an appointment offered in Flat Rock, about 5 hours from my home. Badly as I wanted the vaccine, I wasn’t willing to drive 10 hours to get the first dose, then repeat the exercise for the second one.
Phone calls were equally frustrating. Either the number rang and rang (after 45 minutes my patience ran out), was busy or there was an automated response that no appointments were available and to call back later.
That’s when the irritation set in. What was the problem? Was our vaccine plan inadequate? Did we not have enough doses? Were our health departments and hospitals not properly prepared? Admitting it had not taken off well, Secretary Cohen told me, “It was like a perfect storm” of problems. The feds weren’t providing timely information on deliveries, some vaccinators went to work to immediately get vaccines in arms while others were less aggressive. Providers didn’t have enough people to answer phones, process patients or give shots. Some weren’t open enough hours. The state computer program didn’t work well, but perhaps the biggest problem was that our state has a decentralized healthcare system and every county approached vaccinations a little differently. Neither the governor, the secretary nor anyone can dictate what must be done and when.  
Wake County’s website crashed from the demand just hours after it went live on Tuesday and phone lines were quickly overwhelmed. They weren’t alone. DHHS got the message, but the old proverb about the difficulty in trying to change horses in the middle of a stream was once again true. Health leaders and government officials heard the irritation and anger and changes resulted.
The Governor called out the National Guard to help and 10 high-throughput sites have been established throughout the state to get shots moving faster and the urgency of stepping up the pace was given all providers. There was a dramatic turnaround. By mid-week almost 500,000 vaccinations had been achieved.
The best recommendation is to have patience and persevere in attempts to get an appointment. Things are getting better. Good thing, because it won’t be long before the larger population under 65 will have their turn. The help on the way must be timely and efficient.