Just what does it require to vaccinate an entire community?

In Brunswick County, it takes two hospitals, the county health department and the National Guard to deliver the shots that will end the COVID-19 epidemic. This massive – and, so far, successful – undertaking wouldn’t be possible without cooperation and collaboration among several groups.

Shelbourn Stevens, president of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center; Becky Whiteside, Novant Health’s regional manager for specialty institutes in the coastal markets; and Joanne Campbell, Novant Health’s regional manager for the Community Health & Wellness Institute in the coastal market are leading the effort on the Novant Health side.

The Novant Health leadership team is partnering with Lynda Stanley, president of Dosher Memorial Hospital and Foundation; David Stanley, Health and Human Services director for the Brunswick County Health Department; and Cherie Browning, nursing director for the Brunswick County Health Department.

About 45,000 Brunswick County residents are in the 65-and-older group currently being vaccinated. “Given the size of that population, it takes an all-hands-on-deck approach to make this happen,” Whiteside said. “All three of the participating organizations are putting our vaccines in one pot and then building one schedule off that. It allows us to share staffing responsibilities and get the vaccines to the community as quickly as possible.”

How quickly? From the time patients arrive until they’re out of the parking lot is generally less than 30 minutes. And that includes the 15 minutes of post-vaccination monitoring. (People who have had anaphylactic reactions in the past need to be observed for 30 minutes.)

“We’ve been very fortunate,” Whiteside said. “We have paramedics on-site and a qualified team ready to jump in as needed, but we’ve seen few, if any, adverse reactions.”

Military precision

These vaccine clinics have been operating Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Brunswick Community College since leaders staged a trial run on Jan. 8. They began in earnest on Jan. 11 and take place in the Odell Williamson Auditorium parking lot to maximize the number of people they can serve.

Thanks to everyone’s involvement – and in no small part due to the presence of the National Guard – the clinics run with military precision. Vaccinations are available by appointment only. Novant Health patients can register online. Residents who aren’t established Novant Health patients can use a web-based portal to secure their time slot. Area residents without a computer can call the county health department to schedule their appointment.

“We’re following state guidelines about who can be vaccinated and when,” Whiteside said. “When people are here for their first shot, we actually go ahead and schedule your second appointment so we know exactly when you're coming back.”  

Whiteside said many people who have come through the clinic are downright enthusiastic about getting the shot.

Ted King mass vax ECA
Ted King was happy to get the COVID-19 vaccine at the Brunswick County mass vaccination event

“This is the first time some of them have been out of the house since March of 2020,” she said. “They are so excited to take that first step to return to life as normal. The vaccine puts them one step closer to being able to get out of their home. We are seeing patients who have been living basically by themselves in the confines of their home finally finding this light at the end of the tunnel. It’s an amazing process and very rewarding to see.”

Occasionally, someone is nervous and has some questions. “We talk to the patient and make sure we’re counseling them appropriately to ensure they feel very comfortable before they give their consent to get the vaccine,” Whiteside said.

The Brunswick County vaccine operation is administering both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.  Freezers at the site store the Pfizer vaccine at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit.  “We transport it according to the guidelines from the hospital to the vaccine site and then we take the needed precautions to reconstitute it and then administer it,” Whiteside said.

Whiteside praises the 41 members of the National Guard assigned to Brunswick County for how responsive and effective they’ve been. “They have been a tremendous help,” she said. “They are directing traffic, pre-screening, handling paperwork, and entering information into the state portal. This level of efficiency would be hard to maintain without their help.”

A public health emergency requires a village. One has emerged in coastal North Carolina – and it is proving to be one of the success stories of the pandemic.