From just outside the open privacy curtain, Georgia Best watched Sunday afternoon as her two sons filed into a cramped cubicle and, side by side, received their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Best has been vaccinated for months. But she’s been watching news of the more contagious delta variant closely. And with both her sons headed to school in the coming weeks — Ka’trell Green to college at WakeTech and his brother Maleke to his junior year at South Garner High — she wanted to keep them safe.
“I just feel like having something is better than having nothing,” Best said. “And if something ever happened to them and I didn’t get it for them, I couldn’t live with that.”
That’s why they showed up to WakeMed’s “Back-to-School Blitz,” a weekend vaccine clinic aimed at parents and children ages 12 and older. Timed right, those who received their fist dose Saturday or Sunday would be on track to receive their second before the start of the county’s traditional school year on Aug. 23.
For weeks, demand for the vaccine in North Carolina has slowed, and appointments in clinics like these have gone unfilled. That’s despite urgent pleas from state leaders, incentives like vaccine lotteries and door-to-door efforts to get shots in arms.
But health workers say growing concern over the delta variant — and a surge in COVID-19 cases in some parts of the country — may be driving more people to get the shot as they eye summer’s end.
Appointments at the weekend WakeMed clinic were full, and staff accepted dozens of walk-ins looking for a first dose. For many families who showed up, the recent reversal of COVID-19 trends was on their minds.
Two weeks after returning to year-round class where masks are optional, 13-year-old Franklin Gonzalez said getting the vaccine “just seems a little safer.”
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the new delta variant or how it’s going to impact us,” said his mother, Ismelda Rosario, who also brought her 12-year-old daughter for a first dose Sunday. “But at least we have some kind of protection.”
A week of rapid changes
After months of declining case counts, the last week of July was marked by a slate of bad COVID news.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited new evidence from several small-scale outbreaks indicating vaccinated people can spread the delta variant — now the dominant strain of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. — as easily as the unvaccinated. That finding, CDC officials said, makes the strain different from past versions and puts the unvaccinated more at risk.
Public health officials point out, however, that vaccination vastly reduces the chance of contracting the virus in the first place. And even those with breakthrough cases are far less likely to face serious illness, hospitalization or death.
“The delta variant is showing every day its willingness to outsmart us and to be an opportunist in areas where we have not shown a fortified response against it,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing last week.
In response, the federal agency announced a change to its safety guidelines, recommending vaccinated people don masks indoors in areas of the country seeing “high” or “substantial” community transmission of the virus. That now includes almost all of North Carolina, including Wake County, which just a few weeks ago only saw “moderate” levels of spread.
The federal agency also now recommends all staff and students in K-12 schools wear masks.
But those guidelines haven’t translated to mandates — at least not universal ones.
On Friday, the last vestige of Gov. Roy Cooper’s own mask mandate expired, eliminating the statewide requirement to mask up in crowded places like public transit and schools. In a press conference last week, Cooper said he’s leaving decisions about masks up to local officials and individuals, opting to double down on policies that promote the shot.
“Schools know what to do. Businesses know what to do. People know what to do. We are encouraging everyone to wear masks as per the CDC guidelines,” Cooper said Thursday. “But we know the real way out of this is vaccines.”
Under Cooper’s new executive order, employees in the governor’s cabinet agencies as of Sept. 1 must provide proof of vaccination or submit to weekly COVID testing. Cooper said he’s also leaning on the private sector to adopt similar policies for employees in an effort to boost vaccinations.
At the WakeMed clinic Sunday for her second dose, 23-year-old Sarah Taylor said her own employer’s vaccine requirement was her primary motivation.
“Apart from that, I wouldn’t choose to come here,” Taylor, who works at a pediatric clinic, said. “I’m not afraid of the vaccine or a conspiracy theorist or all that, I just wouldn’t want it.”
Even though she hasn’t been personally concerned for her safety amid the pandemic, she said she was relieved to get the final dose.
“I’m still not thrilled about it, but it certainly will make life easier,” Taylor said.
With school return ahead, safety is top of mind
Although children 12 and older have been cleared for the Pfizer vaccine since May 10, it took siblings Campbell, Emma and Eli Strickland time to decide they wanted one. After getting their first dose at the WakeMed clinic Sunday, the 12-year-old triplets said they did it to keep themselves healthy — as well as others who might be more vulnerable.
“Now that we’re vaccinated, they’ll feel more safe with us being around them,” Campbell Strickland said.
Their mother, Bridget, a healthcare worker who got vaccinated early in the rollout, said not all her children’s friends were planning to get the shot, which may have played a role in their hesitation.
“I feel like you guys made a good decision,” Bridget Strickland told them as they waited around after the shot. “And it was your decision.”
The Strickland triplets are far from alone. Even though 12- to 17-year-olds had less time than other age groups to get the jab, state data shows they’ve made big gains since late May.
As of Friday, data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services shows about 49% of all 12- to 17-year-olds in Wake County have received at least one shot of the vaccine, compared to about 26% statewide.
That’s the lowest percentage of any age group. But while vaccination rates for other ages have slowed down, the numbers are still seeing a steady rise for children.
That’s particularly true in Wake County, where the fully vaccinated population of 12- to 17-year-olds grew by 6 percentage points in a month.
And at the weekend vaccine clinic at WakeMed, health officials were hoping to keep up the momentum.
Staff at the clinic administered about 300 doses on Saturday, according to hospital spokesperson Kristin Kelly. That’s far more than the normal Saturday average of about 200 shots in previous weeks. Kelly said the event was on track to administer another 120 or so doses Sunday, a day the clinic is typically closed.
Although she normally staffs this clinic, registered nurse Nicole Cary showed up on her day off with her two young daughters in tow. She’s seen the increase in demand firsthand.
“It died off, and now with the delta variant and more mandates with employers — and soon-to-be WakeMed — we’re really ramping up,” Cary said. “So we’re adding more clinics and more staff.”
Cary’s 12-year-old daughter, Emily Przybylowski, got her first dose at the event, a day before she’s slated to start 7th grade at Lufkin Road Middle School. Cary said notification of an outbreak at the year-round school was one of the things that prompted them to show up.
Emily’s 14-year-old sister, Elizabeth, though, is still on the fence. She said she’s scared of needles, and she opted against getting the shot Sunday, a few weeks before she goes back to school at Athens Drive High.
With her shot done, Emily had some advice for her older sibling on their way out of the clinic.
“Just do it.”