Carteret health department boosts personnel to help with COVID-19 response

This sign in front of the Carteret County Health Department marks the place where residents can receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Monday, the County Consolidated Human Services Board approved the hire of full- and part-time health department staff to assist with COVID-19 vaccinations, testing and other duties at the department and in county public schools. (Cheryl Burke photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — The Carteret County Health Department is hiring five full- or part-time employees to assist with screening, testing and other duties related to the agency’s coronavirus pandemic response.

The County Consolidated Human Services Board approved the use of state and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funds for the positions Monday during its meeting, held via Zoom.

The state has provided $115,000 in temporary funds to hire a public health nurse that will act as a school health liaison to assist with screening, testing and vaccine administration. Last year, the Carteret County school system hired additional school nurses to help manage the workload.

“The nurse will be focused on supporting the school nurses with isolation and quarantine, as well as positive case contract tracing in schools,” County Health Director Nina Oliver said. “This will be a health department position, but will work with the schools countywide.”

The health department is currently recruiting for the position.

In addition, the department hired an immunization program nurse and a part-time COVID-19 tester, who started Monday.

Plus, “We are in the process of recruiting for another COVID tester as testing demands continue to increase,” Ms. Oliver said.

The consolidated board also approved the hire of a temporary medical assistant to assist with COVID-related duties at the health department. The salary is set at the range of $31,266 to $48,462, plus benefits.

Ms. Oliver said the department experienced a more than 600% increase in testing services in August, prompting the need for additional positions. In August, more than 260 COVID-19 tests were performed compared to an average of 36 tests per month in May, June and July.

The department is offering vaccines all day Friday and Wednesday afternoons and is ready to increase capacity if and when third doses are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, Ms. Oliver said. The ACIP is a group of medical and public health experts that develop recommendations on how to use vaccines.

The two groups are expected to meet Friday and make a decision regarding booster shots, Ms. Oliver continued. Once a decision is made, she said the health department will increase services to meet the demand for third doses. Plus, other area providers will be able to administer the shots as well.

“It will look slightly different than the first time around when we first offered vaccinations,” she said. “The first time only the public health department offered vaccines, but this time we have over 3,500 vaccine providers. Not everyone will come to the public health department for the booster.”

Ms. Oliver said while there has been a slight decrease over the last week in new daily confirmed cases, the county and state are still reporting a large number of confirmed cases. Of the positive cases, more than 99% are the highly contagious delta variant, according to Ms. Oliver.

As of Tuesday, there were 369 active cases in the county, a jump from 227 reported Monday. Of special concern to Ms. Oliver is the increase in positive cases in those 24 years of age and under.

“Case rates are increasing at the greatest among 18- to 24-year-olds, followed by 0- to 17-year-olds,” she said. “Case rates for children are higher than January peak levels.”

The percent of those testing positive is still well above the state goal of 5%. As of Tuesday, the percent positive rate for the county was 10.5%. This compares to the state positive rate of 13%.

Ms. Oliver emphasized the best way to contain the virus is to get vaccinated. As of Tuesday, 50% of Carteret County residents have been fully vaccinated, with 55% receiving at least one dose.

Ms. Oliver said 679 COVID vaccines were administered by the health department in August. The agency has administered a total of 11,029 vaccines. So far, the department has administered 471 doses to 12- to 17-year-olds, with 254 of those first doses only.

She said the mortality rate of those infected with COVID-19 is 15 times higher in unvaccinated individuals compared to those who are vaccinated. For the four-week period ending Aug. 21, the mortality rate among unvaccinated people was 3.6 cases per 100,000 among the unvaccinated population. The mortality rate among vaccinated individuals was 0.23 per 100,000 among vaccinated individuals.

Ms. Oliver added that the infection rate among the unvaccinated is 4.5 times higher than in the vaccinated population. For the week ending Aug. 21, the infection rate among the unvaccinated was 539 cases per 100,000 in the unvaccinated population. The rate among vaccinated individuals was 121 per 100,000 cases.

Ms. Oliver said while breakthrough cases can occur among the vaccinated, the severity of the symptoms is less in the majority of cases.

“The vaccine is not fool-proof. No vaccine is fool-proof,” she said. “But if you catch COVID, the severity of the disease is significantly less and you have less chance of dying.”

The health director said she continues to hear people incorrectly comparing the number of flu deaths to those who have died of COVID-19.

“There have been 11 times as many COVID-19 deaths in the past 16 months as the reported number of influenza deaths in North Carolina in the past 10 years,” she said.

There have been 14,468 COVID-19 deaths reported in the state in the past 16 months, compared to 1,275 influenza deaths in the state in the last decade, she reported.

Consolidated Human Services Director Cindy Holman praised Ms. Oliver and her staff for persevering through such a difficult time.

“I am so proud of our nurses and other staff at the health department and (The County Department of Social Services) who are exposed almost every single day,” she said. “They keep their chins up and they keep on marching.”

Ms. Holman closed by saying, “We continue to be challenged on many fronts around the COVID virus —  not just by the work, but by the various opinions about masking, quarantining, isolating, lethality, testing, treatment, etc. We want to assure you that we will continue to fight the good fight. We will follow (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, take direction from (the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services) and tow the line. We very desperately want our community and every citizen in it to be safe, healthy, happy and whole.”

In other action, the board approved a request from Ms. Oliver to accept $39,900 from NCDHHS to address COVID-related health disparities. Funds will be used to prevent and control infection or transmission among populations at higher risk and underserved, including racial and ethnic minorities and people living in rural communities.

 

Contact Cheryl Burke at 252-726-7081, ext. 255; email Cheryl@thenewstimes.com; or follow on Twitter @cherylccnt.

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