Some Charlotte-area counties are lagging far behind reaching President Joe Biden’s 70% vaccination goal by July 4.
In fact, those local health departments do not have their own county-specific immunization targets. Yet they acknowledge that stubbornly-entrenched vaccine hesitancy, plus a lack of urgency among some residents to get their shots, will leave large swaths of their populations unprotected from the coronavirus for now.
Across the region, counties report that between about half to two-thirds of their residents are not vaccinated yet.
Health officials say a 50% vaccine benchmark, reached as late as this fall, could still be considered a major victory, as trusted messengers and community leaders turn to increasingly personalized, one-on-one conversations to get as many residents immunized as possible.
“I think 50% is more realistic and achievable, just based on what we’ve seen historically,” Cleveland County Public Health Director Tiffany Hansen told the Observer. “I don’t know if we will (reach that). I’m hopeful that we can increase our metrics and be a little more comparable to where the state is.”
As of late Wednesday, 44% of North Carolinians were at least partially vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
In Mecklenburg County, the rate is slightly higher: 47%.
“Obviously, we’ve got quite a ways to go to get to 70%,” Mecklenburg Public Health Director Gibbie Harris told county commissioners this week.
Elsewhere in the region, immunizations rates vary by as much as 15 percentage points, according to an Observer analysis. (The Triangle far outpaces Mecklenburg, including Orange County at 63%.)
Union County’s partial vaccination rate is 40%. Cabarrus County trails just behind at 39% and Lincoln County at 38%.
Bigger gaps, compared to Mecklenburg, are seen in Gaston and Cleveland counties at 36%, as well as Stanly County at 32%.
Rowan County appears to have the lowest rate for the Charlotte region at 31%, according to N.C. DHHS. But Rowan Public Health Director Alyssa Harris said the figure is closer to 34% when factoring in vaccinations at the Salisbury VA Medical Center, which are not included on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
“We’re still behind,” Harris said. “I can understand why some people are hesitant. I hope that they reach out to us. People don’t want you to try to make them feel a certain way about it — they want you to open the door.”
‘We’ll get there’
Dr. Mandy Cohen, the N.C. DHHS secretary, warned Thursday that “fewer people here in North Carolina are protected from COVID-19 than in many other states.”
Gov. Roy Cooper emphasized he ultimately wants to see at least two-thirds of all North Carolinians vaccinated, though local health directors indicate the number is daunting.
“We worry about counties and just areas of the state where a lot of people remain unvaccinated,” Cooper said during a news conference. “There is a potential for more virus, more sickness and more death.”
In the earliest days of the vaccine rollout, as supply remained extremely tight, Gaston County managed to fill 1,500 appointment slots in “literally six minutes and have a waiting list of 1,000,” said Public Health Director Steve Eaton.
Seemingly overnight, after vaccine eligibility expanded and the most eager people secured their shots, demand plummeted.
Now, a successful day for Gaston’s health department is more modest, Eaton said, like vaccinating a dozen residents.
“I would love to be equal to the state and be at 50%,” Eaton said. “We’ll get there. This community is resilient. We, as public health, also have to be patient and compassionate with individuals.”
It’s a familiar refrain in surrounding communities, where health officials grapple with vaccine misinformation, skepticism about the accelerated rollout of three viable shots and a deep-rooted distrust of the healthcare system among marginalized groups.
Lack of urgency
Significantly improved coronavirus metrics may be the bigger culprit in Cleveland County, Hansen said.
Younger residents, some of whom felt invincible throughout the pandemic, are lulled into a sense of security due to low daily case tallies and hospitalizations, she said. That’s especially true, Hansen said, if those individuals did not alter their behavior much over the last 15 months to follow coronavirus safeguards.
“It’s not super prevalent anymore,” Hansen said of coronavirus infections. “Our job has been articulating why get (vaccinated) now and why we think it’s important. Our concern from the public health lens really is: Will we see (COVID) spikes?”
Harris, of Rowan County, said adults ages 18 to 49 still believe they’re not the “target demographic” for the vaccine compared to senior citizens, the most vulnerable group who largely have been immunized against COVID-19 for months.
It’s partially a short-term perspective, Harris said, likening it to chronic smokers in the county who do not contemplate subsequent illnesses years from now.
“If you’re able to put off the future — if you’re able to not really think about it and your actions don’t affect you till later — it’s much harder to have that reality affect your decision-making today,” Harris said. “I’m concerned about the long-term impacts of COVID that we are continuing to hear about, even for people who are asymptomatic or had few symptoms.”
‘Move off the fence’
Convenience is now the enduring vaccine strategy, as pop-up clinics make their rounds at mobile home parks, breweries, fairgrounds, workplaces and other popular sites where people happen to be.
The goal, officials say, is to eliminate any obstacles to getting vaccinated — and sometimes, vaccinate entire groups like households and coworkers, at a single event.
Yet the most creative public health efforts can flop as people struggle to overcome vaccine worries on the spot. That was the case at New Sarum Brewing last weekend in Salisbury, less than a week before the governor unveiled a vaccine lottery and scholarship program as extra motivation.
At the brewery, Rowan County decided to offer the $25 Summer Cash Cards, a vaccine incentive from the state, there to coincide with the launch of a new beer. Despite a steady stream of customers at the brewery, only nine people got their vaccine shots, Harris said.
“We thought we were going to do something. It was really disappointing,” Harris said. “It was the perfect opportunity to catch people.”
But low turnout at health department clinics is not necessarily a bad thing, considering that vaccines are now readily available at pharmacies and doctor offices, officials say.
Eaton, from Gaston County, views education at community events as a top priority for people stuck in a “wait-and-see” mentality.
He’s confident demand will surge again soon, as people return to packed sports games and concerts, as well as college in the fall.
“When people are given time and space to make that individual decision, and once they do, they’re excited,” Eaton said. “We’re seeing the people who have been having that internal conversation with themselves and are ready to move off the fence.”