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Health director: vaccine provides reason for hope amid continued spread of COVID

The prognosis was decidedly mixed this week when the head of Alamance County’s health department appeared before the county’s board of commissioners to deliver his first regular update on the coronavirus pandemic since the start of the current calendar year.

Health director Tony Lo Giudice generally had good news on the vaccination front when he addressed the commissioners at their first regularly-scheduled meeting of the New Year on Tuesday (Jan. 19).

Despite a few hiccups in his agency’s inoculation procedures, Lo Giudice was able to report that his agency had successfully administered 4,006 doses of the coronavirus vaccine as of Tuesday evening. In fact, Lo Giudice told the commissioners that the health department has been so efficient in its dispensation of the serum that it had managed to eke out an extra 81 doses from the 3,925 that the state had allocated to his agency. He added that the health department’s efforts seem to have even impressed state-level officials, who’ve decided to double the agency’s next weekly allotment from 975 to 1,950 doses.

“Our mission is shots in arms, to do it safely, and to do it efficiently,” he went on to assure the commissioners.

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The bad news…
In spite of the headway that has recently been made on inoculation, Lo Giudice acknowledged that Alamance County hasn’t exactly wrested itself from the grip of COVID-19 – the strain of coronavirus that’s responsible for the ongoing pandemic.

The health director told the commissioners that, as of Tuesday, the county had logged a total of 13,500 coronavirus cases – of which 1,536 were considered to be “active.” He noted that, over the past week, the county has added an average of 122 new coronavirus cases a day.

He also acknowledged that the county’s rate of positive test results has climbed to 14.9 percent – a far cry from the 5 percent that has been the statewide goal for this particular figure.

Lo Giudice added that, as of Tuesday evening, COVID-19 had claimed the lives of 194 area residents – 140 of whom were in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities when they contracted the virus. As of Tuesday afternoon, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services was monitoring “ongoing outbreaks” of two or more cases at 18 of these facilities in Alamance County. The state has also been keeping tabs on “clusters” of five or more cases at three local childcare centers as well as a fourth at Southern High School.

Lo Giudice recalled that, on January 6, the state instructed local health departments to shift their focus from contact tracing to vaccination. He added, however, that his agency will continue to investigate close contacts for clusters connected to schools, colleges, businesses, and long-term care facilities. In other cases, residents who’ve been in contact with COVID positive patients receive automatically generated emails that instruct them on how to conduct their own contact tracing.

A shot in the arm for public health
Lo Giudice also acknowledged that the health department’s administration of the vaccine hasn’t been without some logistical snags – particularly as it has extended its efforts from healthcare workers and emergency responders to members of the general public.

The transition to members of the public was especially chaotic at first when the health department was administering shots on a first-come-first serve basis. Things seem have settled down a bit as the agency has phased out its original approach in favor of an appointment-based system. Even so, Lo Giudice admitted that the health department’s appointment call center has received 150,000 call attempts – an indication that many people are having trouble booking their inoculations.

Lo Giudice noted that the health department has yet to expand its inoculation of the general public beyond people who are 75 years old and older. He conceded, however, that the state has given its nod to agencies that are able to proceed to people 65 and above, who comprise the next category in North Carolina’s staggered vaccination schedule.

Lo Giudice told the commissioners that the inoculation process ought to become smoother now that the state has retooled its prioritization schedule by simplifying the categories into which would-be vaccine recipients are divided. He added that the adverse reactions to the vaccine have so far been “slight” among people in Alamance County. He conceded that one person has, so far, been sent to the hospital with an allergic reaction while another was hospitalized because he or she just “didn’t feel well.”

Lo Giudice also touched on the inoculation efforts of Cone Health and other private healthcare providers that received shipments of the vaccine from the state. He told the commissioners that, between these private providers and the local health department, a total of 6,017 people in Alamance County have already received their first dose of the vaccine while another 808 have gotten both of the two prescribed doses.

Lo Giudice said that the health department intends to administer the second dose to its first 50 patients some time later this week. He added that the process will be ramped up next week at the Burlington Athletic Stadium. He noted that the county is still trying to muster more healthcare personnel to assist in vaccination. It also has plans to move vaccination indoors so that its tents won’t be at the mercy of the elements.

A vote of confidence
The commissioners, for their part, seemed more reassured than disappointed by Tuesday’s updates on the coronavirus pandemic.

The members of Alamance County’s governing board were particularly impressed with Lo Giudice’s efforts to demystify the public health response to this ongoing crisis. Commissioner Bill Lashley, for one, commended the health director for calling into a local radio show to dispel some of the misconceptions about the coronavirus vaccines.

“There’s a lot of misinformation, and people are confused. But [speaking to health director tony lo giudice] you’re doing a good job of making that confusion slowly go away.”

– county commissioner bill lashley

“There’s a lot of misinformation, and people are confused,” the commissioner said. “But you’re doing a good job of making that confusion slowly go away.”

Lo Giudice also received ample kudos from John Paisley, Jr., the chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners.

“I can’t say how proud I personally am of you and your group,” Paisley told the county’s health director. “We had the lines on North Church Street, and you took care of that problem. And I understand you’re now working on computerized registration.

“This gentleman continues to work and continues to improve things,” he went on to address his fellow commissioners before offering Lo Giudice another “thank you” in closing.

See comprehensive tally of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in chart below:

See other recent COVID-related coverage:

Leaders of three retirement homes which experienced outbreaks of COVID during 2020 tell commissioners of their experiences (Jan. 21, 2021 edition):

Public Asks: Did school board member who says students need to remain home, and out of in-person classes, because of COVID take part in public protest last week? (Jan. 14, 2021 edition):

Six cases of COVID reported at Southern High School (Jan. 14, 2021 edition):

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