The Wilkes County Health Department has received extra manpower for its COVID-19 vaccine program after being flooded by people wanting vaccination appointments and apparently will get more.

County Manager John Yates said 10,385 calls were made on the appointment phone line (336-990-9950) in five weekdays (Jan. 27-29 and Feb. 1 and 2). These are calls that connected to a recording or one of three to five people manning phones on the appointment line.

County officials said they received reports of people waiting at least four hours for someone to answer calls on the line. They said that when the volume of calls on the line peaked in the five-day period, county government’s entire phone system jammed and no calls could be received or sent.

The appointment phone line has since been separated from the rest of county government’s phone system to prevent this from happening again, said Yates.

Wilkes Health Department Director Rachel Willard said Friday that her department needed about 30 additional people, including to man more phones on the vaccination appointment line. Willard later said six more people will be available to answer calls on this line by the end of this week.

The health department started administering first doses by appointment in drive-through clinics at the Lowe’s Park at River’s Edge in Wilkesboro the third week of January. Vaccinations were on a first-come, first-served basis in the drive-through clinics until then.

The health department had vaccinated about 5,000 people with first doses of Moderna by the end of last week, including about 900 last week. Willard said “community gate keepers” were contacted for help securing first dose vaccination appointments for members of “historically marginalized communities.”

The department is giving second doses of Moderna by appointment in separate drive-through clinics at River’s Edge, including about 230 doses on Feb. 5.

This week at River’s Edge, a drive-through clinic for first-dose vaccinations is scheduled Thursday and a drive-through clinic for second doses is Friday. Both require appointments. Willard said she expected to have enough vaccine for about the same number of doses as last week.

She said that after the vaccine on hand or about to arrive each week is committed via appointments, the health department isn’t making appointments for vaccinations using future vaccine shipments because it doesn’t have enough staff to call people on an appointment list.

There are reports of county health departments in North Carolina with people on waiting lists still weeks away from being vaccinated, based on current weekly allocations of vaccine.

County Commissioner David Gambill said during the Feb. 2 commissioners meeting that he knows from being on the Wilkes Board of Health that “the health department is struggling and staff there are at their wit’s end.”

Gambill said that due to lack of staff, the health department is having to react to situations as they arise rather than plan ahead. He said he supports funding additional part-time help in the department “because they are drowning.”

He suggested meeting with Willard to discuss hiring more people part-time “because this is not going away for the next year.”

Yates said in the meeting that the health department recently hired two additional people to input information required by the state about people who are vaccinated.

The sheriff’s office and county recreation, animal control, emergency medical services, information technology and veteran’s services department staff have been helping the health department but Yates said a plan was made earlier on Feb. 2 for adding staff from the county’s social services and elections departments to assist the health department.

He said this will provide time over the next month for hiring and training part-time staff for the health department.

Eddie Settle, chairman of the commissioners, said that even if enough people are hired to answer all of the calls seeking appointments, the amount of vaccine received falls far short of demand.

Settle said the upcoming release of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine will result in many more people seeking vaccinations because it doesn’t have to be refrigerated “so we need to get ahead of this” before that happens.

Commissioner Casey Joe Johnson suggested allowing people to sign up online for first dose appointments, in addition to doing it by phone. The health department website provides forms for making appointments for second doses online. It was stated in the meeting that many older people aren’t comfortable using the internet.

The health department’s vaccination appointment phone number (336-990-9950) is posted on the department’s website with instructions for seeking appointments.

Instructions on the website for seeking a first dose say, “If you are calling during appointment hours (M-F, 8:30a-4:00p) and receive our recorded message, please stay on the line and allow it to ring until an appointment specialist is available to answer your call. If you cannot get through to make your appointment when you call, do not panic…. Please call back in a few hours or on another day when call volume may not be as high. Do not call multiple times in a row, as this will continue to overwhelm the system.”

Willard said that when all of the health department’s latest Moderna vaccine has been committed through appointments, people calling the appointment phone line get a recording stating that the current first dose clinics are full and a date when more appointment slots will be available.

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