Asheville – As usual, the last meetings of the Buncombe County Commissioners provided updates on the ever changing trends in and responses to COVID data. Now in the vaccination stage, concerns have shifted away from isolation and PPE manufacture, distribution, and installation. The government is currently seeking to balance vulnerabilities with economic necessity and rapidly immunize as many people as possible. Making this difficult are changes in state and federal rules compounded by a mass effort to obtain the vaccine, which a higher level of government can simply rescind should it choose.
On an optimistic note, Public Health Director Stacie Saunders noted key indicators she’s been tracking to gauge the seriousness of the pandemic are stabilizing or dropping at the local level. The trend was less than a week-long, so she was in no position to state whether it represented the shape of things to come or was only a blip in the data; so the commissioners agreed to receive a report at a special meeting already scheduled for the following week, at which time, Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman, either through unilateral powers vested in him or a vote of the commission, could authorize restaurants to resume seating guests at 50% of fire code allowances. Buncombe had been the only county in the state to lower the cap to 30%, much to the hardship of already struggling restaurateurs.
At their formal meeting, the commissioners heard from a tag team marched before the public, with local heads of departments and agencies explaining their role in developing the county’s vaccination system. The role of emergency responders was obvious; the road crews were brought on to help plan traffic circulation and put up the appurtenant signage; and schools were included because A-B Tech and the high schools will be vaccination sites, plus certified and uncertified employees, booster clubs, and PTOs will be helping with staffing and outreach. The forest service was brought on board for its expertise in resource management. Not only was there a need to manage an unreliable scarcity, but other resources also had to be allocated and set up at the centers.
By way of comparison, in Charlotte, Darius Adamczyk, chair and CEO of Honeywell, has made considerable news for his role in organizing the vaccination rollout. Presumably, the effort started on a morning walk with leadership from Atrium CEO Gene Woods and Carolina Panthers President Tom Glick. Phone calls were made over the next 48 hours, and the mayor and governor were brought in to set a goal of 1 million shots by July 4. Bank of America Stadium and Charlotte Motor Speedway, which had served as a testing site earlier, would provide the venues. Atrium would manage the medical end, including staffing, keeping the vaccine cold, the site sterile, and medical records compliant. Honeywell would then use its know-how from its multinational conglomeration of industries dealing with systems development for chemicals, HVAC, fuels, software, aerospace, security, etc. to manage the supply chain, logistics, and ergonomics.
No sooner had local governments sprung to action to answer the call of duty and ramp-up, than governors learned reserves promised to be shipped the second week in January had already been depleted in December. News that the vaccine was not available to hit as COVID deaths in the country were reaching the 400,000 mark and stories of more pathogenic mutant viruses were multiplying. Adding to the mayhem, the state changed its rules for who should get the vaccine. Buncombe Commissioner Parker Sloan was told he was correct in seeing that state and federal officials had changed the rules of the game several times in only a month. Reference was made to dentists who were told they could get the vaccine, then couldn’t, they could, and, most recently, they were eligible but there wasn’t enough vaccine for them. All coming on the heels of the state being ranked 48th in vaccinations and after a state legislative hearing on why less than 25% of the vaccine recieved by the state had been distributed.
While the county has no power over higher levels of government, they have made some changes to their scheduling processes in the interest of fairness, reduced anxiety, and less confusion. Earlier, it seemed, by the time members of the public were able to pick up the phone, all the appointments were gone. Adult children trying to schedule appointments for their parents had flashbacks to the old days of going through Ticketmaster to try to score seats for a Stones concert.
Allaying fears of “insider trading,” Buncombe County set up a waiting list. People can now call 828-250-5000 or click on a couple of links accessible from buncombecounty.org. They will be asked a few questions, and if their answers indicate they are in a currently-eligible group, they will be added to the list. Currently, only healthcare workers, staff, patients from long-term care facilities and persons 65 and older are eligible. Mission/HCA has its own stash of vaccines unrelated to the county’s allocations.
When placed on the list, patients get a timestamp and identification number. Staff will work down the list chronologically and call people to let them know when enough vaccine has been delivered for their turn and schedule the vaccination. A-B Tech is the site for first vaccinations, and the second vaccinations will be administered at the high schools, mainly to minimize paperwork confusion. At the current rate of vaccination, it would take 60 months to immunize 70% of the county’s population. And that’s why the parade of vaccination organizers was followed by a request from Buncombe Budget Director Jennifer Barnette for the entire $1 million in the county’s 2021 contingency fund to be allocated to the cause.