The push to develop vaccines for COVID-19 was called Operation Warp Speed, but the delivery of two vaccines approved so far might be called Operation Hurry Up and Wait.
While former President Trump can take credit for getting a vaccine rapidly developed, his administration bungled the delivery by handing the vaccines to the states and essentially saying, “Don’t look to us for help.”
But North Carolina has made a similar move by handing much of the responsibility for distribution to county health departments and hospitals. Local health departments have been strained by soaring COVID-19 cases, and for some the added demands of distributing the vaccines have been overwhelming.
“In North Carolina, it does seem like county health departments are a big piece of the puzzle,” said Josh Michaud, an epidemiologist and a global health expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “It has been hard to meet the demand with limited health department resources.”
North Carolina, like other states, has also been stymied by resistance to getting the vaccine. A KFF survey found about a quarter of the public is hesitant, and the doubts are even higher among Blacks and rural residents.
The slowness of the rollout also reflects the state’s decision to vaccinate the most vulnerable first. Following CDC guidelines, the state began with frontline health-care workers and long-term health facility residents and staff, and most counties have expended to the next group, people 65 and older.
Julie Swann, an N.C. State University professor whose research includes health-care supply chains, said North Carolina’s vaccination plan is one of the best in the Southeast. But she said it has taken a more methodical and targeted path — and thus a slower one.
“Reaching a priority population takes more time,” Swann said, “but you’ll save more lives.”
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the rollout isn’t so much the shortage of vaccine — that was expected — it’s a shortage of information. Too many North Carolinians don’t know when their turn will come and where they should go to get the vaccination.
Charles Edwards, who recently retired as a logistics expert at the N.C. Department of Transportation and now teaches planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said state officials should not be working so much in the dark about who wants the vaccine and how to find them. He said there are databases that can be used to better shape the distribution and keep people informed about their access to a vaccination.
Gov. Roy Cooper needs to assume more leadership in the vaccination effort. He and state health officials should develop a clearer map of the need, allow more flexible protocols for distributing the vaccine and find a way to inform every North Carolinian about where they stand in line and when their time will come.