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It took a major effort to deliver the COVID vaccine. These people in NC did their part

If 2020 is remembered as the year COVID-19 first sent the world into lockdown, 2021 was when we began to fight back with the best tool at our disposal: vaccines.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized use of two vaccines, made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, in December 2020. A third, from Johnson & Johnson, was authorized at the end of February.

Supplies were limited at first, and shots were reserved for those considered most vulnerable to infection: front-line health care workers and residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

As vaccine supplies increased, eligibility for vaccination gradually widened. Hospitals and public health departments held mass vaccination events, in auditoriums or parking lots, often by appointment only. Some people drove more than 100 miles round trip to find an opening.

All of this took effort from thousands of people, from scientists and health care professionals to lay volunteers.

In addition to the logistics required to get millions of shots in people’s arms, government and health care leaders had to wage a public awareness campaign — to educate people about the vaccine and persuade them to get it.

It soon became clear that the vaccination process favored people who were already plugged into the heath care system or had other advantages, such as access to a computer and the time to hunt for available appointments. Hospitals, health departments and non-profit groups became more deliberate about making the vaccines available to low-income, Black and Hispanic communities, where vaccination rates were lowest.

Demand for the vaccines waned by early summer, as the number of new cases fell to their lowest point since the opening days of the pandemic. Vaccinations ticked up again as the more contagious delta variant of the virus fueled a late-summer surge in new cases, particularly among the unvaccinated.

Today, about 69% of adults 18 and over in North Carolina are fully vaccinated; among people 65 and older, the number is 91%. Hispanic residents are now as likely to be vaccinated as non-Hispanics, and the deficit among Blacks has narrowed considerably.

The News & Observer named UNC researcher Ralph Baric as the Tar Heel of the Year for his role in the coronavirus pandemic. But it is also recognizing others involved in the vaccination effort in North Carolina and beyond.

Here is a closer look at some of them.

President Joe Biden listens as Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), right, speaks during a visit at the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the NIH on Feb. 11, in Bethesda, Md. NIH Director Francis Collins is second from left.
President Joe Biden listens as Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist with the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), right, speaks during a visit at the Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory at the NIH on Feb. 11, in Bethesda, Md. NIH Director Francis Collins is second from left.

Kizzmekia Corbett, viral immunologist at the National Institutes of Health

When most people were hearing the word “coronavirus” for the first time in early 2020, Kizzmekia Corbett was leading a team of researchers who had been studying coronaviruses for five years. Corbett, a native of Hillsborough who earned a doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill, headed basic research and analyzed data that went in to developing and testing what became the Moderna vaccine for COVID-19.

Building on their earlier research, her team was able to create a vaccine that was ready for the first round of clinical trials in just 66 days.

“After I get over the fact that I’m still very tired from running what was essentially a race to the vaccine, you know I’m grateful that we were able to do it in that amount of time. I’m grateful for the team,” Corbett said in an interview. “And I’m grateful every time I hear someone is being vaccinated or someone says, ‘Oh my God, I just got my grandmother vaccinated’ or ‘My grandmother got boosted.’ It feels like a collective sigh of relief every time I hear those words.”

Others have taken note of Corbett’s work. Time magazine named her an emerging leader and one of its “Heroes of the Year,” and she received a North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor. Along with her boss at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Corbett spoke at UNC’s commencement last spring, and this summer she became a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Corbett used her increased visibility to try to overcome skepticism about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, particularly among African Americans.

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Teresa Womack, RN administers the final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to Pam Wise, RN at the Dunn Community Center on Friday, February 12, 2021 in Dunn, N.C. Harnett Health administered 1027 doses of the vaccine in four hours on Friday.
Teresa Womack, RN administers the final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to Pam Wise, RN at the Dunn Community Center on Friday, February 12, 2021 in Dunn, N.C. Harnett Health administered 1027 doses of the vaccine in four hours on Friday.

Kelly Honeycutt, director of administrative operations at Harnett Health

Making the COVID-19 vaccines available to the public often fell to people who already had full-time jobs doing other things at hospitals and government health departments. Among them was Kelly Honeycutt, whose job at a small rural hospital system south of Raleigh comes with a lot of responsibilities, including recruiting, negotiating contracts and overseeing marketing for Betsy Johnson Hospital in Dunn and Central Harnett Hospital in Lillington.

Kelly Honeycutt oversaw vaccine distribution for Harnett Health, the nonprofit health system where she is director of administrative operations.
Kelly Honeycutt oversaw vaccine distribution for Harnett Health, the nonprofit health system where she is director of administrative operations.

Honeycutt assembled a team that offered shots to the public two to three days a week from January into May. Without any experience running mass vaccination events, they learned as they went. When they realized, for example, that some people were staying longer than the required 15 minutes after getting their shots, they bought timers to let people know when it was time to go.

When lines began forming outside the hospitals in Dunn and Lillington, they moved the operation to the Dunn Community Center, which had more room. In the end, Harnett Health administered 38,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine at its vaccination events, Honeycutt said.

“It was trial and error and a lot of determination, a lot of passionate people in our organization that were willing to do whatever it takes to help our community and vaccinate those who wanted to get vaccinated,” Honeycutt said. “And at the end of the day we just made it work.”

In small-town NC, thousands get vaccine quickly, efficiently and with much enthusiasm

Members of the U.S. Air Force administer vaccinations at a mass vaccination clinic Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at Four Season Town Center in Greensboro. The clinic expects to vaccinate 3000 people per day over eight weeks.
Members of the U.S. Air Force administer vaccinations at a mass vaccination clinic Wednesday, March 10, 2021 at Four Season Town Center in Greensboro. The clinic expects to vaccinate 3000 people per day over eight weeks.

Members of the N.C. National Guard

The National Guard has been helping the state respond to the COVID-19 pandemic from the beginning. Early on, Guard members helped distribute masks and other personal protective equipment and worked with food banks and school systems to deliver meals and school lunches to those kept home during lockdowns. Hundreds of Army and Air National Guard members were activated, most on six-month deployments.

When vaccines became available, Guard members helped public health departments organize and run vaccination clinics, including the state’s largest outside a former Dillard’s department store in Greensboro. Nurses and other medical personnel administered shots, while other Guard members helped register and prep people as they came in the door.

The extra hands helped counties handle the high demand for vaccine in those early months. Altogether, Guard members were involved in nearly 1.1 million vaccinations statewide.

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Dr. David Wohl at UNC Health and Dr. Cameron Wolfe at Duke Health, infectious disease experts

Confusion, rumors and misinformation have been a part of the coronavirus pandemic from the beginning. Misguided theories and hunches about the vaccines and their side effects spread easily on social media. Meanwhile, the best thinking of scientists and public health officials changes over time as they learn more about COVID-19.

Dr. David Wohl and Dr. Cameron Wolfe are among the authoritative figures in North Carolina who help keep people informed and explain the science behind the pandemic. Both are involved in COVID-19 research and treatment, and both took part in clinical trials for vaccines and treatments.

And both are able to talk about them in plain language, at press conferences and in interviews with reporters. Along with Dr. Mandy Cohen, outgoing state Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Wohl and Wolfe have been trusted voices for Triangle residents throughout the pandemic.

“I think many of us feel there’s an obligation under the current circumstances to share information that’s accurate, that’s based in the science,” Wohl said. “Without there being people who are doing this work, who understand the data, explaining this, there’s a vacuum that gets filled by less-informed voices.”

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The Sister Circle: Six African-American women doctors at WakeMed

When COVID-19 vaccines became available to the public in early 2021, it became clear that people of color and marginalized communities were less likely to receive them, either because of a distrust of the science or because they were disconnected from the health care system.

Six WakeMed doctors — two family physicians, two OB-GYNs, a pediatrician and a psychiatrist — decided they wanted to help, particularly in the predominantly African-American community where WakeMed’s main campus is located and which had one of the highest rates of coronavirus in the state.

WakeMed doctors, collectively known as the Sister Circle, take a selfie while filming a WakeMed commercial recently. The group helped bring COVID-19 vaccines to Black and brown residents of Southeast Raleigh. They are (front): Rasheeda Monroe, Michele Benoit-Wilson, Jacqueline Hicks and Netasha McLawhorn; (back): Nerissa Price and Tiffany Lowe-Payne.

With the help of the Wake County Public Health Department, they began reaching out to pastors at Black churches and members of historically Black sororities and other organizations. By late spring, they had organized dozens of vaccination clinics in the community and administered 14,000 doses of vaccine.

Lechelle Wardell, the community outreach and engagement manager for the county health department, said the doctors were critical to Wake’s vaccination efforts.

“We would not have been able to get folks vaccinated at the rate that we did without their help,” Wardell says. “And without them saying, ‘We’re concerned that Black and brown folks aren’t having the same kind of access, and we’ve got to get out into the community and take it to them.’”

Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi, family physician and professor at Duke University School of Medicine

North Carolina’s Hispanic residents have borne a disproportionate burden from COVID-19, particularly early on in the pandemic when many remained on the job as “essential workers.” By mid-June of 2020, Latinos accounted for 44% of COVID-19 cases, even though they make up only about 10% of the state’s population.

Dr. Viviana Martinez-Bianchi and her Duke colleague, Dr. Gabriela Maradiaga Panayotti, formed Latin-19 to assess the needs of the Latino community and help it respond to the pandemic. Martinez-Bianchi became an advisor to the state Department of Health and Human Services on its response to COVID-19 and a prominent voice for Latinos among decision-makers. She shared public health messages with Latino residents on the coronavirus and how it spreads, as well as how people could get tested and vaccinated.

This fall, Martinez-Bianchi was named Family Physician of the Year by the N.C. Academy of Family Physicians. In nominating her for the award, Cohen, the outgoing Secretary of Health and Human Services, credited Latin-19 with helping ease the impact on Latino residents. The rate of coronavirus infection among Latinos has fallen significantly in the state.

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Erin Smith, family nurse practitioner with the Johnston County Public Health Department, talks with Briona Davis after she received a COVID-19 vaccine shot during a pop up vaccine clinic in the Smithfield Housing Authority’s subdivision of Woodall Heights in Smithfield, N.C. Tuesday, June 8, 2021. With Davis is her daughter, Rayona Jones.
Erin Smith, family nurse practitioner with the Johnston County Public Health Department, talks with Briona Davis after she received a COVID-19 vaccine shot during a pop up vaccine clinic in the Smithfield Housing Authority’s subdivision of Woodall Heights in Smithfield, N.C. Tuesday, June 8, 2021. With Davis is her daughter, Rayona Jones.

Erin Smith, family nurse practitioner with the Johnston County Public Health Department

By early summer, the number of people actively seeking COVID-19 vaccination in North Carolina had leveled off. The lines dwindled at mass vaccination events, which were discontinued. But with only about half of adults fully vaccinated by the beginning of June, public health workers shifted their strategy, to small-scale or one-on-one efforts in neighborhoods or at churches and businesses.

State data at the time showed that vaccination rates were highest in areas with higher incomes, and public health officials worked to reduce that disparity.

Public health workers like Erin Smith were among those taking vaccines to the people.

Smith was part of a team that included National Guard soldiers who visited the Woodall Heights public housing complex in Smithfield one morning in early June. They went door-to-door and offered the shot to everyone they saw, including a construction crew and a DoorDash driver making a delivery.

“We’re just trying to eliminate every barrier that we can to make the vaccine as accessible as possible,” Smith said. “That’s what these outreach clinics are about.”

Staff writer Kate Murphy contributed to this report.

NC health workers go door to door to tackle ‘fault lines of inequality,’ vaccine barriers