‘Like the Wild West’: NC residents had lots to say about COVID vaccine rollout

Hannah Smoot
·7 min read

Alberta Rollins has been trying to get an appointment to get the COVID-19 vaccine in Mecklenburg County for over a week.

She finally got one through Novant Health, but will have to wait until May to get the shot. Meanwhile, her husband managed to schedule an appointment with Novant for this coming week.

They’re both over age 65 — she has high blood pressure, and he has diabetes, so they want to get a shot as soon as possible. “We don’t want to die, we want to live,” she said.

Rollins is one of roughly 600 people who responded to a Charlotte Observer and (Raleigh) News & Observer survey asking folks to share their stories about trying to get the coronavirus vaccine in North Carolina.

Many said they were furious with the roll-out — especially since the state had months to prepare for a coronavirus vaccine distribution.

A common reaction was from a Union County man, who called the process of trying to obtain a vaccine “terrible, insane, complete travesty.”

Others, like Mecklenburg resident Connie Liles, said they had no issue getting a vaccine appointment. Liles said she feels “blessed, very lucky” to get an appointment.

Her husband was eligible first, when the state prioritized shots for people age 75 and up. He got his initial shot Jan. 7 at Bojangles Coliseum through the Mecklenburg County clinic.

Liles, 66, is getting her first shot Friday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway mass vaccination event. “I can’t wait,” she told The Observer. “I’m so excited. I’m gonna take pictures.”

Lines of cars curve through a parking lot at Charlotte Motor Speedway as people prepare to be vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus.
Lines of cars curve through a parking lot at Charlotte Motor Speedway as people prepare to be vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus.

She said signing herself up for a shot through Atrium was easier than using the county health department “I do worry about people that don’t use tech all the time,” she said.

That was another common theme from some in the survey, that older people who are not tech savvy could have issues signing up for vaccinations.

A 73-year-old woman in Mecklenburg County summed up her frustrating experience trying to line up an appointment: “Absolutely terrible. They’ve had a year to prepare for this!! I thought NC/Charlotte was better than this.”

Another Mecklenburg woman in her 70s said registering on the county website was easy because she is computer literate, but, “My elderly friends are all scrambling and worried.”

And when a 91-year-old Mecklenburg man got to his appointment at Bojangles Coliseum, he said he found the process “orderly, fast and organized.”

Vaccine distribution

Last month, Atrium Health was the first in North Carolina to administer a COVID-19 vaccine. That shot went to Atrium’s medical director of infection prevention, Dr. Katie Passaretti.

Since then, more than 38,000 COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Mecklenburg County, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. And 7,560 people in Mecklenburg have received both doses of the coronavirus shot.

More than 573,000 doses of the COVID-19 shots have been administered across North Carolina, according to NCDHHS.

Lisa Bowman watches as she gets a COVID vaccination from a Gaston County Emergency Medical Services (GEMS) medical personnel during Gaston County Department of Health and Human Services sponsored Phase 1B vaccine clinic at the Gastonia Farmer’s Market on Friday, January 8, 2021.
Lisa Bowman watches as she gets a COVID vaccination from a Gaston County Emergency Medical Services (GEMS) medical personnel during Gaston County Department of Health and Human Services sponsored Phase 1B vaccine clinic at the Gastonia Farmer’s Market on Friday, January 8, 2021.

But the state has been criticized for a slow vaccine roll-out.

Reporting by the North Carolina Watchdog Reporting Network shows emphasis on geographic equity — getting doses out to every county in the state — may have had a hand in slowing vaccinations.

Several people in the Hickory area who responded to the survey said they had a pretty good experience accessing vaccines, although others reported it took them over an hour to reach someone to make an appointment.

North Carolina has given out roughly 40% of the vaccines distributed to the state, ranking it 43rd out of 50 states, according to the CDC’s COVID-19 Data Tracker.

And Novant Health doctors say they are disappointed in the limited allocation of vaccines given to Novant.

Novant could administer up to 95,000 vaccines per week if given enough vaccines by the state, infectious disease expert Dr. David Priest told reporters Friday.

But the hospital system will only get roughly 5,000 vaccines from the state next week, Priest said. That’s only 5% of what Novant was asking for. “That number is disappointing and insufficient to serve the patients and the communities that we serve,” he said.

Novant is currently using every dose that is shipped to the hospital system each week, Priest said.

Vaccination events

Mecklenburg County Public Health began administering vaccines at Bojangles Coliseum this month.

But technology issues delayed appointments, frustrating many. Appointments can be made for the Bojangles clinic by calling 980-314-9400 and selecting Option 3, or online at mecknc.gov/COVID-19 or https://booknow.appointment-plus.com/83g1hcpv/.

One Charlotte lawyer, John Gresham, told the Observer he called the clinic hotline at least 30 times on Jan. 5 and never got through.

N.C. National Guard members direct people checking in at Bojangles Coliseum for COVID vaccination appointments on Wednesday, January 6, 2021.
N.C. National Guard members direct people checking in at Bojangles Coliseum for COVID vaccination appointments on Wednesday, January 6, 2021.

At the time, County Manager Dena Diorio told county commissioners the phone line was having problems due to “extremely high call volume.”

Mecklenburg, hospital systems and local businesses have announced a number of vaccine clinics opening this week to deal with high interest in vaccine appointments, including the one at the speedway.

Gaston County too was overwhelmed with calls from people trying to sign up for a vaccine appointment in early January. The Gaston hotline is 704-866-3170.

A Gaston woman said she and her sister each spent six hours repeatedly calling that number for their parents, who are in their 80s. They finally got them appointments.

Elsewhere in the region, a Cabarrus County man reported it took him less than five minutes to sign up for a vaccine through the “very well-organized” Cabarrus Health Alliance clinic.

Survey concerns

Charlotte resident Dave Orr said he was “ecstatic” to get his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine nearly two weeks ago at Bojangles Coliseum.

“It could not have gone more smoothly, more calmly, more efficiently, more professionally,” he said. “It was just an exceptionally good experience.”

Orr credits his experience with being informed and signing up as soon as possible. But he has friends who may have to wait months because they tried to sign up days later.

That was one of the biggest concerns highlighted in survey answers. Many North Carolinians say communication around vaccine appointments — from the county, from the state and from health care systems like Atrium and Novant — has been limited.

“It feels like the Wild West out here,” one health care worker, who has a vaccine appointment scheduled in Mecklenburg County, said in the survey.

A woman in her 70s scheduling a vaccine in Mecklenburg echoed that thought, saying, “Everyone is looking to get the vaccine and nobody seems to have a grip on what’s going on.”

Still others have said they feel lucky to live in Mecklenburg County — though they still wish communication was better. “I think we are lucky to have major hospitals and health department working here,” a 72-year-old responding to the survey said.

‘We’re not young’

Many people say they learned about available vaccine appointments through friends. Liles, who is scheduled to get her first shot Friday, said she texted friends after getting an appointment to let them know.

“I guess they’re working on getting the word out better,” she said. “I just think it’s kind of hard. I texted everybody, but a lot of people were not able to get in.”

Rollins, who has an appointment in May, said a nurse at her doctor’s office told her to check back for more appointments on Friday. But she’s worried if she tries to reschedule, she could lose her May date and be left without a vaccine.

Both of Charlotte’s major hospital systems are scheduling many vaccine appointments through online portals. That can be difficult for older people, the 69-year-old Rollins said.

“Who knows how to do that? We’re not young,” she said. “A lot of us don’t even have computers.”