Brenda Weis

Brenda Weis, Wayne County health director, describes a shortage of nurses at the county Health Department on Tuesday.

Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, the Wayne County Health Department is struggling to find and keep the nurses it needs.

The Health Department has at least 12 nursing vacancies, county health director Brenda Weis told the Wayne County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

“Our communicable disease branch, for instance, has six nurses, of which all are vacant,” Weis said. “Every one of them. And communicable disease is COVID.”

Maternal health and family planning nurses are having to fill in for those communicable disease nurse vacancies, she said.

“And it’s not just COVID,” Weis said. “It’s (tuberculosis) and influenza. It’s everything.”

The maternal and family planning staff also has three or four vacancies, she said.

“Every program has vacancies,” Weis said. “We’re having a very hard time retaining and recruiting.”

She said a new building probably will help stem the staff turnover.

The Board of Commissioners in July chose an architectural firm to design a new health and social services building. The commissioners in June approved a property tax increase that will go in part to financing of an estimated $25 million debt for the new human services building. A site has not yet been selected.

The department is recruiting potential nurses at schools and online, “everywhere we can,” Weis said.

“There’s such a high national, state and local demand we can’t compete,” she said. Applicants would have to decide that “they like our culture, they like the benefits, they like this county.”

“They’re going to take the job not for the money, they’re going to take it for the people and the work, because their heart’s in it and they feel it’s the right thing to do,” Weis said. “And that’s what were trying to push, those buttons, the hearts-and-minds buttons.”

Commissioner Joe Daughtery said prior to Weis’ comments, “We have a critical, I mean critical, need of nurses at our Health Department.”

Daughtery said he hoped the public would “reach out to anyone they may know to actually apply for any of those positions.”

The nurses on staff are supportive of one another, creating a work culture that should appeal to applicants, Weis said.

“It’s a great culture,” Weis said. “They just have to be willing to accept the rest of it. I think the new building will go a long way.”

Weis’ comments came during an update to the Board of Commissioners on COVID-19 testing and vaccines.

Dr. James Stackhouse, medical director for the county Health Department, said that with a surge in the delta variant, the county is experiencing as many new COVID-19 cases now as it was a year ago.

Positive COVID-19 tests in Wayne County averaged at least 70 per day for the seven days that ended Sept. 17, Stackhouse said, citing N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reports.

Nine out of every 10 people who died in Wayne County during the past month were unvaccinated, Stackhouse said.

Nearly 290 people in Wayne County have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, he said.

In Wayne County, 51,378 people are fully vaccinated, 42% of the population, Stackhouse said. Residents with at least one dose number 59,702 people, 48% of the population.

The county Health Department building is limited to 120 vaccinations per day because of social distancing and a 15-minute observation time, Stackhouse said.

The department is searching for a location to administer third doses as well as respond to vaccine mandates such as those affecting federal workers and health care workers, Stackhouse said. The search for a location is “urgently in progress,” he said.

Stackhouse said the former Bussmann building on Dixie Trail, where the county previously provided vaccines, is available until Dec. 1 but is not an option now because of a pending sale.

Stackhouse said that at peak delivery, with a pre-registration system in place, an adequate location requires parking for at least 125 cars, including staff; an adequate traffic lane for in-car COVID-19 testing if implemented; security, safety and restrooms for staff and clients; adequate HVAC and electricity to meet storage needs; security and lighting; and internet access.

Joel Gillie, county public affairs director, said that residents can visit waynegov.com to make appointments for vaccines.

People who previously received their vaccines through the county will receive information about booster shots via text messages and emails, Gillie said.

“We’re trying to make that user experience as easy as possible,” Gillie said.

The county’s “COVID Connection” task force meetings have resumed, and the next one will be 4 p.m. Thursday, Gillie said. Participating in those meetings are Freeman Hardison, vice chairman of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners, along with county staff and community partners including Wayne UNC Health Care, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Wayne County Public Schools and municipal governments.

The meetings will be livestreamed on the county’s YouTube channel and will be shared on social media, Gillie said.

The meetings began near the outset of the pandemic but stopped when the COVID-19 outbreak appeared to be easing, Gillie said.

“Now we’ve picked these meetings back up,” Gillie said. “We’re inviting members of the public to listen in so they can hear what we’re talking about and the changes that are going on.”