NC health leader addresses questions on slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccine

N.C. DHHS secretary faces questions on slow vaccine rollout

RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) - North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen testified before a joint oversight committee of the North Carolina General Assembly on Tuesday regarding the slow rollout of the COVID-19.

The state is currently vaccinating those in Phase 1b, Group 1, which includes all residents age 75 and older.

Questions surfaced Monday about the effort by state and county health officials to distribute the vaccine and the state’s plan to speed up the process.

While Cohen said she and her staff were working to improve vaccine distribution, she also highlighted the fact that the state has recently set new records for COVID-19 cases.

“It is a lot of virus out there,” Cohen said.

Cohen said roughly 417,000 vaccine doses have been allocated to hospitals, local health departments and long-term care facilities as of Monday but roughly 257,000 doses had been administered.

Cohen said health leaders are getting faster at administering the vaccine, with 100,000 doses of the vaccine being administered in the past week. The next step for the state is bringing in vendors to help increase capacity to administer vaccines, Cohen said.

During her presentation, Cohen said some counties were quickly administering vaccine doses and did not have any leftover doses. She singled out Iredell County and Robeson County in particular.

But much of the questioning from lawmakers centered on the fact that many counties were not getting the vaccine out as quickly, with seniors stuck in long lines and others unable to get through to schedule appointments.

The state determines how much vaccine to send to each hospital and county health department but, beyond that, does not dictate how the vaccine is physically administered outside a loose set of guidelines.

As a result, lawmakers said, North Carolina residents were getting disperate access to the vaccine based on the level of preparation at the local health department level and the departments’ capacity to administer the vaccine.

Cohen said the state is working to increase distribution, with a goal of being able to administer 120,000 doses of the vaccine each week – the current weekly allotment the state is receiving from the federal government.

On top of that, Cohen noted, health departments will soon have to start administering second doses at the same time..

When asked by a lawmaker whether counties had submitted a plan to distribute the vaccine to state health leaders before they allocated the vaccine, Cohen didn’t directly answer the question.

Instead, Cohen pointed out the state developed an allocation plan in the fall and noted the number of moving pieces from the federal government, including changing guidelines from the CDC on who should be prioritized to receive the vaccine.

“I think there are a lot of issues. I think, overall for NC, our decision to prioritize every county... means there are some that are going to be great and some that are going to struggle,” Cohen says. “I want to work on being better.”

Other senators touched on the continued low rate of vaccination in minority communities.

Senator Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) noted that people in minority communities in her area wanted to get the vaccine but couldn’t get through to schedule an appointment.

Cohen acknowledged the continued difficulties and said staff is working to find a way to safely move the vaccine around and keep it frozen to administer into communities.

“I think we’re all working through it. I think everyone is working at record pace to get that out,” Cohen said.

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