Local News

Wake County's calculus: Focus vaccine in ZIP codes where virus spread is worst

Posted January 21, 2021 11:30 a.m. EST
Updated January 22, 2021 9:09 a.m. EST

After Wake County Pharmacy Director Dr. Jason Wittes said the county would "determine the order of appointments based on risk and need" to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine, those who went through the county's phone or internet registration process were surprised to be asked no questions about any pre-existing health conditions.

That's not how the county is calculating risk, spokeswoman Stacy Beard said.

Wake County is allotting appointments based on a formula that includes age and ZIP codes, with priority going to the oldest people in areas where COVID-19 spread is greatest.

Health care workers are at the front of the line. After that, the county assigns the first appointments to those 75 and up in the ZIP codes where the rate of virus transmission is highest, then to those 65 and up in high transmission ZIP codes.

That transmission is greatest in Zebulon's 27597 ZIP code, where 16.5 percent of recent coronavirus tests have returned positive. In Willow Spring (27592) and Wendell (27591), the positive test rate is also over 15 percent. In Knightdale (27545), it is 14 percent. Residents who meet the age requirement of those communities have a leg up in getting their shots.

ZIP codes in Wake with greatest COVID spread

27597 in Zebulon: 16.5% positive

27592 in Willow Spring: 15.7% positive

27591 in Wendell: 15.5% positive

27545 in Knightdale: 14% positive

27511 in Cary: 13.6% positive

27616 in Raleigh: 12.5% positive

27605 in Raleigh: 12.2% positive

27604 in Raleigh: 12.1% positive

27610 in Raleigh: 12.1% positive

That confused Bob Jennings, of Holly Springs, when he tried to make his appointment. Jennings, 77, said, "It didn't help me to let them know that I have COPD. I take two breathing treatments twice a day to try to keep my lungs going, and it doesn't help me get advanced into getting a shot."

The county health department has defended the process of queuing those who apply for a shot and then assigning appointments – some of them weeks in the future – as a way to avoid long lines seen in other counties that have taken a more first-come, first-served approach.

Rep. Cynthia Ball, D-Wake, said the calculus makes sense for her constituents.

"Those people who are most likely to be impacted by COVID are in certain ZIP codes, and also they're probably working in the jobs that are putting them at higher risk for exposure. So I am totally supportive of them prioritizing giving those individuals the vaccine before they necessarily try to reach into other ZIP codes, if you have to make a choice," she said.

Coronavirus vaccinations in NC

Ultimately, those in Phases 1 and 2 make up about 200,000 people in Wake County.

Through Wednesday, almost 47,000 had registered with the county for an appointment.

"I would like to make sure those people understand that that does not mean they're going to get a call today, tomorrow, next week or maybe even this month or next month," Ball said. "It depends on a lot of things, and they just have to be patient and continue to practice the three Ws."

About 4,700 people, or about 10 percent of those registered, have already received their first of two doses from the county health department.

Beard pointed out that residents in a hurry for their shot are welcome to travel to other counties.

"Honestly, I think you should go wherever you think you can get it most quickly," Johnna Sharpe, the county chief operating officer, told WRAL News on Wednesday.

The county health department is not the only Wake County option, either. In fact, only about 16 percent of the vaccines sent to Wake County by the state so far are available through the health department.

Health care organizations like WakeMed, UNC Rex Hospital, Duke Raleigh Hospital and WakeBrook Behavioral Health have gotten part of the county’s allotment of vaccine from the state, but those hospitals are prioritizing vaccinations for their employees and existing patients 65 and over.

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