This event took place on February 9, 2021 via GoToWebinar.
With COVID-19 vaccines rolling out across the state, we have entered a new, and hopefully brighter, chapter of the pandemic. Even so, COVID-19 cases continue to spread across North Carolina, and many people still have questions about how to stay safe and healthy through the winter.
To answer these and other questions from Eastern North Carolina residents, three regional healthcare leaders recently came together virtually to discuss with more than 300 viewers the latest vaccine news, lessons learned through the COVID-19 crisis, and the importance of healthcare access for all North Carolinians.
The conversation was part of a series of virtual town halls across the state hosted by the North Carolina Healthcare Association.
Panelists featured Michael Waldrum, MD, CEO Vidant Health, John Gizdic, President and CEO, New Hanover Regional Medical Center and Philip Jackson, DSL, President, Sentara Albemarle Medical Center.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the conversation:
Vaccines are here—but we have to be patient and stay safe
Safe, effective vaccines are an exciting milestone in fighting the pandemic. But panelists were clear—this effort will take months, and until everyone is able to get a vaccine, social distancing, wearing a mask and washing your hands are as important as ever.
Right now, healthcare workers and people 65 years or older are eligible to receive vaccines, but supplies are very limited. The speakers asked community members to please be patient while they work through the “largest mass vaccination in the history of the world.”
Partnering with community organizations has been key to getting vaccines out, such as health departments and educational institutions. Vidant Health and Pitt County have partnered together to create a mass vaccination site at the Greenville Convention Center, and New Hanover Medical Center has repurposed a local movie theater as a vaccination site. Sentara Albemarle Medical Center also shared their experiences working with faith groups and other organizations to bring vaccines directly into communities that need them.
“It’s a massive, collaborative effort to build those channels and make sure you have the systems and process to ensure people have access to the vaccine,” said Dr. Waldrum.
Even so, the leaders acknowledged that reaching all groups can be a challenge—but it’s one they are committed to meeting.
“We say, ‘schedule your appointment online,’ but this population doesn’t have internet access. The methods we use can create barriers,” said John Gizdic. “We are going to be very intentional about that it really is about changing that mindset. We’ve all been working and talking about health equity for a number of years, but… this pandemic has shown us what inequity looks like. There are populations that are adversely affected in many ways.”
In addition to access, hospitals are also committed to ensuring all communities feel safe receiving the COVID-19 vaccines.
“We know the vaccines are safe, but it’s about building trust in our communities, especially the underserved and underrepresented. That’s an important challenge that we have as providers, but also as a state in general,” said Gizdic.
Dr. Jackson discussed his work with organizations like 100 Black Men of America, which expressed a strong desire to ensure African American communities can get vaccinated, as well as local faith leaders in Spanish-speaking communities in spreading the word about vaccine clinics.
While you’re waiting for a vaccine, don’t delay needed healthcare
Panelists also shared that delaying or deferring necessary care is causing a “second epidemic” during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We’re probably seeing as many or more deaths from [those delaying care] than we are from COVID-19,” Gizdic said.
But after treating COVID-19 patients for nearly a year, hospitals have established effective safety guidelines, and panelists agreed—the hospital is one of the safest places you can be right now.
“That was a major concern for a lot of people,” said Dr. Jackson. “Not wanting to come to the hospital because they didn’t feel it was safe. Our hospital is safe, our emergency department is safe…we want to assure them that we are safe.”
COVID-19 has shined a light on access
Panelists also discussed coverage and access, saying that a lack of insurance coverage is one of the biggest barriers to staying healthy, especially for communities in rural areas of the state.
“Access is one of the biggest issues around health equity,” said Dr. Waldrum. “In North Carolina, it’s around Medicaid expansion and making sure we can move that forward. For us in the field, this isn’t a political issue. This is about the health of North Carolinians and getting access to the care they need.”
Read more about Medicaid expansion: Can N.C. Close the Coverage Gap in 2021?