Recently, Guilford County opened up COVID-19 vaccinations to anyone 75 and older, and, from the moment registration for appointments began, the county’s phone system was completely overwhelmed and virtually no one could get through.  

On the first day, at any one time, there was an average of 1,500 people waiting on hold to make appointments.  So, what did the county do in the face of a tremendous demand and a lack of enough vaccine doses to fill the demand for those 75 and older?   It lowered the eligibility age for vaccine appointments to people age 65 and older.

It doesn’t seem to make sense to expand the group eligible for the vaccine when the county was already overwhelmed, but county officials claim to have a good excuse. The state made them do it.

 In fact, when it comes to many aspects of the vaccine rollout, Guilford County is pointing its finger at the state.

One high ranking county official told the Rhino Times that, if the county had had a choice, it wouldn’t have even made the first age-based public rounds of vaccinations available to the entire group of those 75 and older.  Instead, the county would have restricted eligibility to a subset of that group to keep the number manageable.

Guilford County officials are almost always reluctant to point out what it believes are problems with state decisions.  However, recently, in a press release, Guilford County officials didn’t hesitate to throw some shade on the state.

“After receiving notification over the Christmas Holiday that the State modified its distribution schedule to include all residents over the age of 75, county staff began to make immediate changes to their preparations,” the Saturday, Jan. 9 press release from Guilford County read. “Initial planning information provided by the state indicated that large public group population vaccinations would not occur until mid-February and early March. The last-minute changes required county staff to quickly move up their planning efforts and seek out additional clinic sites to accommodate the large group populations several weeks ahead of schedule.”

Heavy demand for vaccinations overwhelmed the county’s phone system immediately on the first day that staff was taking reservations. By noon on that day, Guilford County had received 11,250 calls to its vaccine appointment line.

 The county has spent a great deal of effort planning the distribution. Guilford County Emergency Management Director Don Campbell and Guilford County Health Director Dr. Iulia Vann are heading up the effort. The night before the calls started to come in, they gave an extensive presentation on the county’s efforts to the Board of Commissioners.

But they both warned the board that night about one key problem that all the preparation in the world wouldn’t solve: There weren’t anywhere enough doses to meet the huge demand for the vaccine.

This week, Vann told the Rhino Times that she felt the local aspects of the distribution effort had been going well.  She said the Guilford County Department of Social Services, Emergency Services Department and community partner organizations had been working very well together with the health department and with each other.

“That’s been pretty much a well-oiled machine,” she said.

However, she said that last minute changes coming from the state hadn’t helped the county’s efforts.

“Everything is being changed overnight on very short notice,” Vann said.

She said, for instance, that the county found out it would be required to move to 65 and up eligibility with no prewarning.  

Vann said high vaccine demand is a good thing since the more people who get vaccinated the better, but she added that the state’s on-the-fly changes in such a high-demand environment created real problems for the county.   

Vann also said that the state’s COVID-19 management system software is far from ideal and is creating some problems in the distribution effort.

“It’s a statewide system and we are required to use it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a little glitchy and clunky and doesn’t meet the needs we have.”