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Vaccinations climb in WNC

Mike Taylor receives a vaccination from EMS Supervisor Toby Moore. David Profitt/JCPS photo Mike Taylor receives a vaccination from EMS Supervisor Toby Moore. David Profitt/JCPS photo

Staff at Jackson County Public Schools looking forward to COVID-19 vaccination got a welcome surprise last week when an impromptu clinic on Jan. 22 vaccinated 313 people who work for the school system. 

“This got put together on very short notice,” said JCPS Director of Human Resources Kevin Bailey, Ph.D. “On Wednesday (Jan. 20) the hospital reached out to us and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got 350 doses of the vaccine that have to be gone by Monday of next week, and can you guys take it?’ We said, ‘We’ll do whatever we’ve got to do to be able to take it.’”

The push to clear the shelves by Monday came from a federal decision to scrutinize vaccine distribution in all states as of Monday, Jan. 25, and penalize those who aren’t using up their allotted doses, Jackson County Health Department Director Shelley Carraway told county commissioners during a Jan. 19 meeting. 

“That’s why there’s a real push for this week,” she said at the meeting. “It used to be we were allocated according to hospital size and population, but now they’re saying, ‘Some of you are doing better than others at actually getting vaccines out the door, so you’re going to be rewarded by getting more.”

While teachers are considered essential workers, they are included in Group Three of Jackson County’s five-group vaccination plan, and the county is still working to vaccinate Group One and Group Two. Those groups include healthcare workers with in-person patient contact, staff and residents at long-term care facilities and people 65 and older. 

Lucretia Stargell, vice president of professional services for Harris Regional Hospital, said the decision to vaccinate JCPS staff out of turn was made in collaboration with the health department as the most efficient way to use up the vaccine doses by the deadline. 

The hospital had 350 doses to use, and that’s about how many of the school system’s 620 employees had indicated interest in receiving the vaccine during a signup JCPS had sent out a few weeks ago. The school system also had the ability to quickly set up a location and gather its people for a fast and efficient vaccination event. 

“As frontline essential workers, teachers and other school system staff are high risk for exposure to COVID-19 in their work settings,” said Stargell. “Vaccinating these individuals also protects our students, their parents and families against COVID-19 and helps keep our schools open and operational.”

Jackson County has, for the most part, kept its schools open since the fall, though there have been some temporary closures of individual schools in response to cases among staff and students. Most recently, Cullowhee Valley Elementary School suspended face-to-face instruction from Jan. 15 to Jan. 25 due to a spike in cases among staff members. 

Since Aug. 17, the school system has reported 51 cases among staff, two cases among non-staff and volunteers and 83 cases among students. The dashboard shows 10 active staff cases and 10 active student cases. In total, 8.2 percent of school system staff have tested positive since August but only 2.3 percent of students.

Data indicate that attending in-person school did not increase students’ chances of getting the virus. Of the 83 student cases, 21 — or 25.3 percent — occurred in students who were attending school remotely. As of this month, 23 percent of JCPS’s 3,620 students were enrolled as remote learners. 

“They’re doing an excellent job,” Bailey said of his staff. “Our student cases have been really low. We’re really happy about that.”

 

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Vaccinations will slow this week

Mass vaccination events last week more than doubled Jackson County’s total shot count from the beginning of the vaccine rollout, with similar jumps in Haywood, Swain and Macon counties. However, things will be slower this week. 

Jackson County had been receiving an average of 200 doses per week since the vaccine rollout began, but this week it will receive only 100. Likewise, Harris — which has been receiving 300 to 500 vaccines each week between its Sylva and Bryson City hospitals – is not getting any doses this week.

While Haywood County Health and Human Service’s shipment this week is on par with normal, it has been told to expect reduced allocations for the next three weeks. The cutback is due to mass vaccination events taking place in Mecklenburg County, county leaders say. 

However, in her comments to commissioners last week Carraway was hopeful that vaccination numbers will climb in the weeks ahead as more partners come on board. Blue Ridge Health is now receiving a vaccine allocation from the state in addition to those already extended to Harris and the health department, and it’s distributing those doses in Jackson, Haywood, Henderson, Transylvania, Polk and Rutherford counties — between those six counties, Blue Ridge Health has distributed 1,900 doses so far. The Highlands-Cashiers Healthcare Foundation is also receiving vaccine doses — theirs are coming from Mission Hospital — and is hosting a clinic at the Highlands Recreation Center from 1 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27. 

So far, all the entities distributing vaccine doses in Jackson County are administering the Moderna shot, which does not require the extremely cold storage needed for the Pfizer vaccine. However, Western Carolina University has been chosen as one of three University of North Carolina Institutions — along with N.C. A&T State and UNC Pembroke — to offer a public COVID-19 clinic. WCU will be using the Pfizer vaccine, Carraway said. 

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