How Hurricanes, Word-of-Mouth, and the Church Boosted This NC County’s Vaccine Drive

People look out at the Avalon Pier that was damaged by Hurricane Dorian in Kill Devil Hills in 2019. Local health officials say hurricane response prepared them for their successful COVID vaccine drive. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

By Billy Ball

March 11, 2021

“You are kind of building the airplane as you fly it,” says Dare County’s top health official Sheila Davies.

What do hurricanes and COVID-19 have in common? 

Not much, although Dare County’s top health official says preparing for the former has made the latter an easier lift. That’s one way to find silver linings. 

Perhaps that’s why Dare County, home to North Carolina’s sprawling Outer Banks, is one of the state’s leaders when it comes to vaccinating a greater percentage of its population.

Of course, NC’s urban centers have certainly vaccinated the most people. 

But percentages are key when it comes to slowing this pandemic. And Dare ranks in the top 5 statewide with more than a quarter of its population already receiving its first shot. Roughly 20% are fully vaccinated. 

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Dare County Health Director Sheila Davies has led the county’s office since 2014. She’s also a former mayor in the Dare County town of Kill Devil Hills. She says the county’s top emergency management and health officials have been seasoned by the hurricanes that tend to batter these flat lands in the late summer and fall. 

Davies says her office has also emphasized connecting with credible local leaders and folks in the faith community to combat skepticism of the shot, which has been found effective at combating the virus while producing mostly mild side effects. 

We were doing about 300 or 400 people. Now we average about 1,000 people per clinic. In fact, this coming Saturday at a clinic we’re going to do 1,500 people on that one day.” 

Dare County Health Director Sheila Davies

Davies talked this week to Cardinal & Pine about Dare County’s ongoing work in taking on the coronavirus. And she has helpful hints for other counties who want to boost their vaccination efforts.

Dare County Health Director Sheila Davies (Image via Dare County)

C&P: How has the vaccine deployment been going down there? 

Davies: We’re fortunate because we’re doing really, really well. We have an amazing team that’s made up of our Health and Human Services Department, our emergency management division in the county, support from EMS and our local law enforcement, specifically the sheriff’s office as well as the county’s public relations department.

With all of these individuals working together, we’ve been able to host pretty turnkey vaccine clinics now. When we first started back in late December, we were testing the waters with how the operation of our clinics would go. 

We were doing about 300 or 400 people. Now we average about 1,000 people per clinic. In fact, this coming Saturday at a clinic we’re going to do 1,500 people on that one day. 

It takes a team effort. We have folks working constantly on scheduling because we do everything by appointment. That helps us control the numbers and know we’re reaching the right population or the right group. That also prevents us from running out of doses on a given day so we know exactly how many we’re going to deliver on any day based on our state’s allotment. 

C&P: Impressive. This is an undertaking like nothing we’ve ever done before. It’s like building the plane as you’re flying it. How have you progressed through the bumps? 

Davies: A couple of things have worked in our favor to be maybe more prepared than some areas. First is probably I would say our preparedness is attributed to the relationships we already have with emergency management, social services, through our regular hurricane preparedness. 

We frequently have to work together. We’ve done mass vaccinations for tetanus after a hurricane. 

Or we’ve worked with getting people evacuated who needed help or getting people to emergency medical services during a hurricane. 

Our working relationship was already established. And I think that facilitates quick mobility when you’re trying to organize and set things up. 

The other thing is we were fortunate for about five years to host the Missions of Mercy dental clinic where we had partnered with the NC Dental Society. Public health in Dare County, we organized those events. We were seeing anywhere from a thousand to two thousand patients in a weekend. Actually we were using the same facility where we hosted those dental procedures to do our mass vaccination clinics. 

So from our staging to our flow and setup it works in a similar fashion. That’s certainly given us some good startup experience. 

And we started small. As I mentioned, we started with about 300 to make sure that our systems were in place and logistically we could handle it. And we just replicated and grew and added more vaccinators and more data entry folks. 

But to get to the point, you are kind of building the airplane as you fly it. The new information that we were having to learn on the spot with the data that we had to enter into the state’s “CVMS,” that’s the state’s COVID vaccine management system, all of the entry for the vaccinations for individuals, we certainly had no experience with that and we had to get folks trained and ready and tracking inventory and creating systems for folks who had to come back for their separate dose. 

And now throwing a new wrench, getting the [Johnson & Johnson] vaccine, folks who are only going to come in and get one dose, making sure that our communication is strong and able to support the different nuances of which vaccine people are getting. 

C&P: Research has shown the vaccine to be safe, but there remains a lot of skepticism from some. How do you folks down in Dare County manage this? 

Davies: I think with the rollout initially working with healthcare personnel, we had really strong adoption from healthcare personnel. We hadn’t met the resistance that I anticipated we were going to meet. Maybe that works in our favor because we’re a smaller community and we know each other so well. 

I even saw that within our own health department. Initially there had been some folks who were saying—this is well before we were scheduled to receive the first vaccine—that they were going to wait, they probably weren’t going to get it right away. But the momentum caught on when they saw their friends getting it. 

They heard that “Dr. So-and-So” at the hospital got his and he was fine. We had people who had originally said they weren’t going to do it and within the first week they said, ‘Oh, I’ve changed my mind.’ And so that really helped, and that momentum has really continued. 

Probably the group that I am most concerned with is going to be our younger professionals just to see how it rolls out with them. Hopefully there’s not this skepticism. Or nervousness. But if so we’re prepared to do with our health educators just general information on the vaccine. 

I think though another thing that might work in our favor, with tourism being our #1 industry and it being such a service industry, folks they want to be protected because they know that they are going to be at an increased exposure because they know there are people they are going to be interacting with. 

I hope that’s where it continues, and we’re not seeing adverse reactions. So far we’ve given over 9,300 first doses and 6,500 second doses, and between now and next week, we’ll give another close to 3,000 first doses. 

Knock on wood, people are doing well. You have the sore arms. You have some people who might just feel a little fatigue the day after, but that subsides really quickly. And everyone I’ve spoken to is just grateful to get the vaccine. They’re ready to get on the other side of this. 

C&P: Makes sense that as the summer approaches, you’re going to see a lot of folks flooding in who are eager to see the Atlantic Ocean. No two counties in NC are the same, but what sort of advice would you give to other counties to boost their rollout?

Davies: It’s important to connect with some key stakeholders in the comm who are trusted in the community. Hopefully they already realize the benefit of the vaccine and if so they’d be willing to speak with members of their community. 

Unfortunately, there’s some mistrust with government. Unfortunately, a lot of the pandemic has been politicized. 

Trying to remove that and remove the stigma of “Government says this, so do it” and connecting with people who say, “Do this because it’s going to protect you. It’s going to protect your family. It’s going to allow you to get back to a new normal.”

There are key champions. We’re doing that in some of our more historically marginalized populations, working with some faith leaders, folks that they trust. With them getting vaccinated and showing that they’re okay and that it’s the right to do, I think that will help folks who may have some hesitancy.

Author

  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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