As The State Supplies Mass COVID-19 Vaccination Sites, Local Providers Receive Fewer Doses

Jan 25, 2021

A healthcare worker prepares a Pfizer vaccine dose at a large-scale vaccination site at UNC's Friday Center in Chapel Hill Tuesday, Jan. 19 2021.
Credit Travis Long / The News & Observer

Health providers across the state say they're receiving significantly fewer doses of the COVID-19 vaccines this week than they expected.

The state health department is sending more of its weekly allocation from the federal government to mass vaccination sites to speed up the process — such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, where nearly 16,000 people were vaccinated over the weekend. But that means other providers are getting less.

A Wake County spokeswoman says the health department there asked for 3,000 to 4,000 doses, but will get less than a thousand. UNC Health says its entire system is getting 10,000, which is less than half of what it anticipated.

Both providers are scheduling fewer appointments this week for eligible patients, which include anyone 65 and older. Others, like Cone Health, had to cancel thousands of appointments.

Cone Health CEO Terry Akin said the decision “shocked” him and noted he is “very unhappy that the state appears to keep changing the rules for vaccination allocation.”

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said in a statement on Monday that supply shortages are fueling the problem.

“As long as we are getting such a small amount of vaccine as a state, there are going to be challenges and shortages as we try to ensure equitable access to vaccine, while getting shots into arms quickly. We understand this is hard for providers who are doing everything right,” Cohen said.

The North Carolina Hospital Association sent a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper today, calling for a more efficient and consistent rollout. The state health department says it will give more guidance about vaccine distribution on Tuesday.

“The responsibility to successfully vaccinate the state’s residents has largely fallen to our state’s hospitals without a clear and consistent plan from the state or the necessary resources for success,” association CEO Stephen Lawler wrote.

The recent acceleration of vaccine administration already has bumped North Carolina from one of the 10 slowest states in the country per capita to the middle of the pack over the last 10 days, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cohen has repeatedly emphasized the state's desire to lay a strong foundation by making vaccines available in all 100 counties. This partly contributed to North Carolina's slow rollout and a heightened desire by the Democratic governor to accelerate vaccinations.

A more contagious strain of the coronavirus first detected in the United Kingdom in December was confirmed in North Carolina over the weekend, boosting the importance of getting vaccines administered faster.

Cooper announced Jan. 14 that the state had partnered with Honeywell, Atrium Health and Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper to set up clinics at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium and a future Winston-Salem site in an effort to vaccinate 1 million people in the region by July 4.

“Getting vaccines in people’s arms as quickly and equitably as possible is a top priority for North Carolina,” Cooper said at the time. “Partnerships with businesses, health providers and government like this can help get it done.”

During last weekend’s pilot vaccination event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Atrium Health vaccinated almost 16,000 people from Friday to Sunday, with an average completion rate of 35 to 40 minutes per vehicle, according to Honeywell. The pilot program's second phase occurs this coming weekend at Bank of America Stadium, where the goal will increase to about 20,000 to 30,000 vaccinations — which would represent at least one-sixth of the roughly 120,000 new first doses the state expects to receive this week from the federal government.

Torsten Pilz, Honeywell’s global supply chain chief, expects there to be an imbalance over who has what for another week or two but that the supply discrepancy “will become a moot point pretty fast.”

“Our desire really is to vaccinate as many people as fast as we possibly can. That's all we want to do,” Pilz said. “We don't want to take anything away from anybody. We don't control the distribution of vaccines that several entities (do). We create a concept and a system that allows us to really scale this to a mass population really fast.”