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Leading health providers discuss ‘dramatic’ promise of COVID vaccines, appeal for greater resources

While wintry weather  cancels some vaccination clinics this week, state expects 24,000 additional doses

North Carolina leading health care providers outlined the promise and challenges of COVID vaccine distribution in a virtual town hall organized by Congresswoman Deborah Ross on Wednesday.

Kody Kinsley, the operations lead for NC DHHS COVID-19 Response, told the panel that while more than 1.8 million vaccines have been administered the need remains great.

“It’s really hard. None of us are used to living in a kind of consumer-constrained supply environment,” Kinsley said. “It makes really hard decisions for all of us.”

One bit of good news this week is that the federal government is increasing North Carolina’s share of vaccines by about 24,000 doses.

“Now to put that in context that’s still pretty small relative to a state with 10 million people. So that’s 210,000 doses that we have to spread across 100 counties in the state,” Kinsley said.

Leigh Bleecker, interim president of Duke Raleigh Hospital, said their facility has cared for more than 20,000 COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began.

But now she’s worried about others who have delayed getting care and necessary screenings.

“One of the things that has been challenging is that patients have delayed care because of COVID, and so as they are coming back into our facility, they are more acute and they are sicker, even if they don’t have COVID,” Bleecker offered.

And while the vaccine clinics have run smoothly for Duke Raleigh Hospital, 50,000 people remain on their wait list to get vaccinated.

Since vaccinations began for team members at Duke Health, employee infections have fallen by more than 75%, according to Bleecker.

Donald Gintzig, President & CEO for WakeMed, told the group that the peak for COVID admissions came about three weeks ago, with the vaccines providing measurable relief.

“Since that time, we’ve seen our census drop by two-thirds, and the majority of that has been 65 and older,” Gintzig said.

“This vaccination effort is really having dramatic results.”

Steve Burriss,  chief operating officer for UNC Health Triangle Region, said their system has administered 150,000 vaccines. The system has benefited from knowing three-weeks ahead of time how many doses to expect.

“We as a system really advocate for making sure that the allocation methodology is done in a way that fosters collaboration and not competition among everyone that is trying to get this scarce resource,” said Burriss.

“And [we] really don’t want to be put in a position of having to police various groups,” he said, referencing concerns that some may try to jump in line ahead of others in getting the vaccine.

Starting February 24th the vaccine will be available to educators and essential child care workers.

Penny Washington, the CEO of Advance Community Health Center, raised the very real concern about vaccine hesitancy among health care providers and the ripple-effect that could have in the community.

“We still have 30% of our staff that have refused the vaccination,” Washington said.

“What are we doing about education in this community? The majority of our patients are the marginalized community, African-American, Hispanic, people below the federal poverty level.”

Dr. George Mensah is a senior advisor at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

He acknowledged Washington’s concerns, and the challenge in vaccinating those who may distrust the federal government.

“Always, always provide truthful, trustworthy information, based on the science. Many of those who refuse may have misinformation about the safety of the vaccine or the effectiveness of the vaccine.”

Dr. Mensah said health care providers must never give up on winning over those who refuse the vaccine initially.

“This is a national challenge, not just a North Carolina issue.”

The Biden administration’s is currently fast-tracking a massive COVID relief package through Congress that includes:

  • 14 Billion in additional funding for vaccines
  • 46 Billion for additional testing and tracing
  • 7.6 Billion to expand the public health workforce, offering some relief and back-up to exhausted health care professionals
  • 25 Billion to address health disparities

Rep. Ross (NC-02) said she is especially hopeful North Carolina will take advantage of a sweetener in the bill for states that have yet to expand Medicaid.

“It would provide a 95% match rather than a 90% match for the first two years. In North Carolina that would provide an additional $2.4 billion in additional funding, if we choose to expand Medicaid.”

Ross said the U.S. House could vote on the initial package as early as next week.

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