Chris Rutledge, a nurse for Samaritan’s Purse, eats lunch, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, during the only short break of her 12-hour shift inside the COVID-19 field hospital built by the Christian relief organization, in Lenoir, N.C. Caldwell Memorial Hospital asked for help from Samaritan’s Purse as cases in the North Carolina foothills skyrocketed and bed space dwindled. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan) Coronavirus in North Carolina
Chris Rutledge, a nurse for Samaritan’s Purse, eats lunch, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, during the only short break of her 12-hour shift inside the COVID-19 field hospital built by the Christian relief organization, in Lenoir, N.C. Caldwell Memorial Hospital asked for help from Samaritan’s Purse as cases in the North Carolina foothills skyrocketed and bed space dwindled. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)

North Carolina has had a slow start to vaccinations. And a recent move to divert shots to more large-scale events is shorting rural North Carolinians, some say.

Medical providers cancelled thousands of vaccine appointments around the state this week, after NC health officials switched up the way vaccines are distributed to target more mass vaccination events. 

“Because doses were diverted, grandmothers and grandfathers who had appointments in rural NC now wait,” wrote Stacie Turpin Saunders, the Buncombe County Health Director, in a letter to NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen. “Health care workers who had appointments where they serve patients now wait.”

The weekend letter was sent on behalf of the NC Association of Local Health Directors, which Saunders is president of, and also signed by the group’s executive director. 

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The NC Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) opted to change direction this week to send more doses to large-scale vaccination events, like those held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway and at the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium. 

Health care workers and those over 65 are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in NC right now. 

But that meant more localized events in some counties got fewer doses, and thousands of North Carolinians got calls that their appointments to get the potentially life-saving vaccines were canceled. 

That includes Cone Health, the major hospital system for the Greensboro area, which cancelled 10,400 appointments this week after finding out from NC DHHS they were not getting any first doses of vaccines. 

“We are deeply disappointed that we are forced to delay these essential vaccinations,” Terry Akin, the CEO of Greensboro’s Cone Health, said. “In order to maintain an aggressive vaccination strategy, we need predictability and regular vaccine shipments from the state as originally promised.”

They will be able to offer the second dose to people who are scheduled to get it and hope to reschedule those with cancelled appointments. 

“I am very unhappy that the state appears to keep changing the rules for vaccination allocation,” said Akin, the Cone Health hospital executive.

UNC Heath, the 11-hospital system headquartered  in Chapel Hill, also got about half of the vaccines it was expecting. Federal officials typically let the state know how many doses it will receive on a Tuesday, with the state agency then informing local providers on Friday about the upcoming week’s allotment. 

NC DHHS did not respond to Cardinal & Pine’s requests for comment.

A sputtering vaccination effort?

The dissatisfaction stretched far beyond Greensboro and Cone Health. The NC Health Care Association, which represents the state’s hospitals, sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper today, calling on him to fix what’s been a sputtering vaccination system marked with inefficiencies and fast-changing directives from state health officials.  Some state leaders have blamed inconsistency at the federal level for the troubles.

Many public health departments at the state’s 100 counties also canceled appointments for health care workers or those over 65, according to the group of local health directors. 

North Carolina has struggled to gain traction in its vaccination efforts, and lags behind half of the country in its ability to get first doses to its residents.

There are 10 million people in the state. And 552,194 have gotten at least one of the two doses of vaccine according to data kept by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That amounts to 5,265 out of every 100,000 North Carolinians.  

Alaska and West Virginia have led the country in per capita vaccinations, with 10,652 and 9,140 doses per every 100,000 residents, according to CDC data.  At the bottom are Missouri and Idaho, with 3,958 and 4,053 vaccinated people for every 100,000 residents.

There is a limited supply of vaccines nationwide, with many more people right now wanting to get vaccinated than can be provided. North Carolina is in Phase 2 of its 5-stage plan, where health care workers and those over 65 can receive vaccines.

Since President Joe Biden took office last week, he announced a COVID-19 strategy plan that, among other things, compensates state and local health officials more for administering the vaccine, and speeds up the rate of vaccinating Americans. 

Editor’s note: This piece has changed from the original to reflect that Stacie Saunders is the Buncombe County health director, not her former position in Alamance County.