Some front-line doctors have trouble getting vaccinations

Plus: Plans scuttled for 15-story SouthPark apartment tower; New police station in Ballantyne; Organization tips from a pro; New Panthers suites; Gastonia baseball team named for aggressive animal

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LEDGER IN-DEPTH

Physicians unaffiliated with big hospital systems struggle to get Covid vaccine — even those who see high-risk patients

(Photo by Hush Naidoo/Unsplash)

By Michelle Crouch

Independent doctors and health care providers in Charlotte who are unaffiliated with Charlotte’s big hospital systems say they were largely left out of the initial Covid vaccine rollout while Atrium Health and Novant Health prioritized their own employees.

Even front-line providers who interact with patients potentially infected with Covid say they had trouble getting the vaccine.

“It has been very frustrating,” said Dr. Dino Kanelos, a family practice physician at Carolinas Family Healthcare and president of Independent Physicians of the Carolinas. “We are doing 15 to 25 Covid tests a day and can’t get the vaccine for our staff, while Atrium and Novant seem to be giving it to people who have a lot less exposure.”

Kanelos eventually managed to get the vaccine for himself, but he said some of his front-line staff are still trying to get appointments through the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

Dr. Melissa Cupid, a family physician who operates a small practice in University City, said she hasn’t been able to get the vaccine for herself or her staff, either — even though she performs Covid tests.

“I am seeing people every day who are possibly ill and infected,” she said. “All physicians should be able to get it, whether affiliated with a hospital or not.”

National problem: It’s not just happening in Charlotte. With the federal government so far relying on public health departments and large hospital systems to distribute the vaccine to healthcare workers, private practice physicians across the country are complaining about access. At times, they have been behind hospital employees who don’t see patients or who work from home.

Atrium postponed appointments after outcry

Atrium came under fire for its prioritization process in December after a social media manager tweeted about her upcoming vaccine appointment. Afterward, Atrium postponed appointments for her and 96 other employees. 

When asked if it had prioritized its own employees over front-line healthcare workers in private practices, Atrium sent a statement that said, in part:

We have focused our efforts on patient-facing teammates in the first wave of vaccinations. … We are proud to offer the vaccine to eligible medical personnel who are unaffiliated with a health system. In fact, we have vaccinated nearly 2,400 patient-facing healthcare workers who do not work at Atrium Health.

Asked the same question, Novant sent a similar statement that said:

Our goal is to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, prioritizing our patient-facing team members whose work responsibilities place them at the greatest risk for COVID-19 exposure.

Novant said about 12% of the vaccines it had administered so far went to independent providers.

A ‘tortuous and complicated’ process

Mecklenburg County Public Health Medical Director Dr. Meg Sullivan said the health department has been reaching out to front-line providers who aren’t affiliated with a hospital to help them sign up for the vaccine. But she acknowledged the process may be frustrating for some.

First, healthcare providers have to attest that they qualify for the vaccine and be registered by the state, Sullivan said. Once that’s done, they must register again with the county scheduling system, and then compete with others for a limited number of slots.

“We are working incredibly hard,” Sullivan said. “I’m up until 2 a.m. responding to emails, trying to get back to people. It is hard and unfortunately right now this is happening across the country since we know that demand is higher than supply.”

Sullivan said she wants to make sure primary care providers who give Covid tests get signed up for the vaccine. She planned to meet with a group of independent physicians over Zoom on Thursday night to walk them through the process.

Independent physician Dr. Craig White of Davidson Family Medicine recently went through the health department to get the vaccine for himself and his staff. He called the process “vigorous, tortuous and complicated.”

White said he fears that smaller, independent practices without the time or resources for such an effort aren’t getting immunized “due to the inequitable distribution of vaccines … and the hoarding of vaccine by profit-driven entities.”

Independent doctors feel ‘left in the dust’

During the controversy over the Atrium social media manager’s vaccine appointment, Atrium released a statement to WCNC reporter Hunter Sáenz that said, “Under guidance provided by state and federal regulators, all healthcare workers [emphasis added] are considered Priority 1a to receive the vaccine.”

That actually wasn’t the state guidance at the time. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) defined those in phase 1A as “health care workers fighting COVID-19 & long-term care staff and residents” such as health care workers who were:

  • caring for patients with Covid

  • working directly in areas where patients with Covid are cared for, including staff responsible for cleaning, providing food service and maintenance in those areas

  • performing procedures on patients with Covid that put them at risk, such as intubation, bronchoscopy, suctioning, invasive dental procedures, invasive specimen collection and CPR

  • handling people who have died from Covid

Dr. Elizabeth Rostan, a dermatologist with Charlotte Skin & Laser, said she carefully read the description of phase 1A in December and determined she did not fall into that group.

“A few weeks later, everyone was posting and texting about getting their vaccine … people in pediatrics, plastic surgery, OB-GYNs and other dermatologists,” she said. “I know they’re not caring for Covid patients.”

After seeing that, she reached out to the health department and received an email inviting her to start the process to sign up for a vaccine. But she first had to check a box verifying she was caring for or performing procedures on Covid patients.

“I told myself, ‘I can’t click this box. It’s not us,’” she said. “Those of us in independent practice, we’re following the rules, and we’re being left in the dust. Novant and Atrium got an allocation of vaccines and used them to vaccinate all their physicians, whether they treat Covid patients or not.”

No enforcement

On Thursday, the state health department rewrote the state’s guidelines in order to open vaccine distribution to all North Carolinians age 65 and older. In the process, it moved all patient-facing healthcare workers up to priority group one, above older adults.

That’s good news for specialists like Rostan, who now legitimately qualify to get the vaccine — but they will still have to navigate the county health department’s process.

Sullivan said healthcare providers will compete for different slots than ordinary residents. But she acknowledged it may still be tough to find an open appointment.

“We make new appointments available, and they fill up,” she said. “Then we have to tell them to continue to check back. I know it’s frustrating.”

Sullivan said she couldn’t speak specifically to how the hospitals had prioritized groups in the initial vaccine rollout.

“It’s just a different scenario than we have, so I would refer you to them on that,” she said.

When asked if her department has a responsibility to ensure that the hospitals follow the state prioritization rules, Sullivan noted that she is in regular communication with representatives from both systems about the vaccine rollout and prioritization.

“In those conversations, we all agreed we will have joint voice around prioritization,” she said. “Nothing in those (conversations) raises concern for me. But a role of enforcement? No.” 

Michelle Crouch is a freelance health writer based in Charlotte who’s always looking for good stories. Drop her a line at michellecrouchwriter@gmail.com.  


Editor’s note: For many of us, January is a time of self-reflection and improvement. So at The Ledger, we’re pulling together advice and achievable tips from some of our city’s top experts in various fields for this month-long feature designed to help build a better you — personally and professionally.

Put time back in your day by getting organized

by Brie Chrisman

2020 was a challenging year. So many of us were thrown into a world of chaos — a delicate juggling act of work meetings and childcare that could come crashing down at any moment. For the foreseeable future, 2021 doesn’t look much different. Simple organization can be the key to getting you that coveted “work-life balance.”

These tips are perfect for work-from-home life and can be translated to family life as well:

  • Time blocking can help you create pockets of productivity throughout your day. Add generic timeframes to your calendar. Here’s a sample day for working at home with a toddler:

    • 6-8 a.m. = Work

    • 8-10 a.m. = breakfast/family time

    • 10-12 p.m. = Work/Nap

    • 12-2 p.m. = Lunch/Outside Time

    • 2-5 p.m. = Work/Independent Play/Nap

    • 5-7 p.m. = Dinner/Family Time

    • 7-8 p.m. = Work

    This gives you 8 hours of “work.” Yes, it’s doable! Bonus if you break up your “work” pockets into actual tasks. That will take the guesswork out of “OK, what needs to be done next?” I recommend creating your calendar the night before so you can just wake up and get to work.

  • Use your folders. In your inbox, on your computer, everywhere. If you have multiple clients or multiple projects, use folders to separate all of your files. Just think for a second how much time you spend trying to find files every day. If you have folders for each client/project and then subfolders for different tasks or subjects, you'll be able to find things way faster.

  • Clear out your downloads folder. This one goes with the tip above. You may have a great organization system, but what does your downloads folder look like? If it’s a hot mess, here’s a tip: First you’ll need to clear out what you’ve got in there. Use the new filing system you just implemented (you did that, right?). Move files you need to the appropriate folders and delete the ones you don’t. Then, at least once a day, do that exact same thing. You'll be able to find all of your files AND it’ll take only minutes, not hours, to clean up that folder. 

  • Use your inbox as a to-do list. If the email is still actionable, keep it in your inbox. If you’ve handled whatever is in the email, you’re waiting on a reply or there is no other action needed, move it to the appropriate folder. If it’s something that’s done but you want to follow up on it, star it ⭐️ before moving it to its folder. This keeps your inbox from getting bogged down, and you’ll be able to see what emails actually need to be addressed.

  • Use a project management tool. Are you overloaded with to-do lists? If your brain is about to bust with all of the tasks that need to be done with work, plus everything to manage your home, e-learning, etc., a project management tool might be perfect for you. They can be tedious to set up, but it’s worth the time. There are so many products out there that you can use to help control your daily life with features like automations and recurring tasks. My favorite: ClickUp (free up to a point, then $60/year). Some others to check out: Trello, Asana, Monday.

Simple tweaks like these — apart from the project management tool, that’s a biggie — can go a long way in getting you time back in your day. 

Brie Chrisman is an expert in all things organization and systems, from cleaning out inboxes to building project management systems. Her company, BC Creative LLC, works with businesses to automate and organize their day-to-day operations so owners can get back to the more important tasks.


Two openings in Ballantyne this week — new police station and Sara’s YMCA reopens

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department moved into its new 16,000 s.f. South Division building on Providence Road West in Ballantyne on Monday. The division covers approximately 57 miles and some 100 people will work out of the building, both from the CMPD South Division and the Housing & Neighborhood Services South Service Area Team. The city spent $5.175M on the 7.5-acre parcel of land in July 2018 and hired Charlotte architecture firm C-Design Inc., and contractor Barnhill Inc. Also Monday: the Sara’s YMCA location in the Ballantyne corporate park reopened, after being closed since March 17. The adults-only gym is open Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

New ultra-luxe Panthers club available for tours

The Carolina Panthers have started offering private tours of “The Gallery,” a field-level club that the teams says is “the newest and most exclusive premium entertainment offering available at Bank of America Stadium.”

Too bad, all you peons with regular luxury suites above the lower bowl of the stadium.

According to a team website, the area offers all-inclusive food and beverages, a “never-before-seen vantage point” to watch the game and a “floor-to-ceiling view into the players’ tunnel.” It says there are 12 suites and two suite clubs. More like sweet clubs:

This photo from the Panthers’ website says The Gallery offers “unparalleled amenities, highlighted by true behind-the-scenes access … VIP parking, all-inclusive food and beverage, oversized padded seats, private indoor lounge space, seamless panoramic views of the action and more.”

There’s a form where you can indicate your interest in purchasing a suite (12 tickets), suite club PSLs (2 or 4 seats), private event rental on non-game days or future chances to watch Charlotte FC, Charlotte’s new pro soccer team.

Nothing online says how much it costs … but if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it. —TM


Plans canceled for SouthPark apartment tower

Plans for a 15-story apartment tower across from SouthPark Mall have been scuttled, with the developer saying another buyer made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Dominion Realty Partners had announced 365 apartments on the site of an old Fifth Third Bank branch across Fairview Road from the Nordstrom entrance to SouthPark Mall. It successfully had the land rezoned for the tower in June.

But after the rezoning went through, Dominion CEO Andy Andrews says, HomeTrust Bank swooped in and offered to buy the property with plans to convert the old bank branch into … a new bank branch.

“We were moving ahead, and those guys came to us,” Andrews said. “They came and offered us a price that we quite frankly — we are in the business of searching for opportunities, and in my world, it’s not all about what you build, it’s about creating value for our employees.”

Property records show that Asheville-based HomeTrust Bank bought the 1.6-acre property for $8M. No records show how much Dominion made on the deal, which is akin to flipping a house — except Dominion didn’t actually buy the property and just assigned the contract to another buyer. Typically, real estate developers in that position earn a fee that more than covers their expenses.

Mark DeMarcus, HomeTrust’s vice president of commercial banking, said in a statement to The Ledger: “We are underway to completely renovate this space and house our retail branch, commercial banking and mortgage banking as we expand in the Charlotte market.” He said the bank is also building a branch in Cornelius and that both locations should be open by summer. —TM

Related: Charlotte Agenda’s Katie Peralta had a piece in September that’s on point on this issue: “Why are bank branches gobbling up Charlotte’s hottest real estate?


Why hasn’t the county pushed for mandatory restrictions?

Mecklenburg County says it plans to reduce in-person services to follow the health department’s new Covid “directive” — and officials on Thursday explained why they haven’t enacted tougher, mandatory restrictions on businesses.

The county said it’s rescheduling “various programs and clinics,” converting libraries to to-go only, refusing to accept reservations at athletic fields, shutting “recreation, senior and nature centers,” halting camping at McDowell Nature Preserve and, dude, putting the kibosh on the skate park at the Naomi Drenan Recreation Center on Wendover Road.

And at yet another county news conference on Thursday, County Manager Dena Diorio explained why the county chose to issue a non-binding but official-looking “directive” instead of mandatory restrictions.

The answer seems to be that no matter how much the county pushes for more stringent new rules, the city of Charlotte and the towns in Mecklenburg County have said they won’t sign on to any new mandatory order that is more severe than Gov. Roy Cooper’s orders. The county can’t act unilaterally: To enforce new restrictions in municipalities, it needs the agreement of the mayors of those municipalities.

That means that all that’s standing in the way of new lockdown orders in Charlotte is the assent of Mayor Vi Lyles. She keeps a low profile on this issue, and in the times we’ve asked about it in the last few months, her spokesman deflects.

Here’s Diorio on Thursday, asked what she would say to struggling small business owners:

It’s all about balance, right? The directive is designed to encourage people to just make sure that they are complying with the governor’s executive order. … It’s a balance, and we understand the economy, and I think that was where the city and the towns were very concerned about putting additional restrictions in place, because they wanted to try to support the local economy, which is what we all want to do.

But when you see the numbers continuing to go up, from a public health perspective, we have to be focused on what’s in the best interest of the community from a public health perspective. That’s the hat that we wear.

While I understand the local economy and impact on that, we have to be concerned about the number of cases in this community. We can’t just sit back while the cases continue to rise.

Huntersville Mayor John Aneralla told The Ledger on Thursday that he’s heard of no new movement by the county to push for restrictions. Asked about the county’s directive, he said: “Quite frankly, in my opinion, other than the schools, everyone ignored what was stated, at least from the traffic I see.” —TM


In brief

  • Can swim meets 🏊‍♀️ be saved? High school swim families are lobbying Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to allow swimmers to compete in conference championships that were scheduled for tonight at various sites, including Providence High School, but cancelled by the school board on Thursday. The board cancelled sports for the next several weeks but allowed teams to participate if they are in the running for regional or state titles. Swimming is apparently ineligible for the exception. High-school athletes across Mecklenburg County were feeling the pain of having their seasons canceled, coaches in different sports told The Observer.

  • Vaccine for ages 65-74: County health officials said they’re not quite ready yet to schedule the Covid vaccine for residents aged 65-74 and that they would announce when they are allowing that age group to schedule appointments. North Carolina said Thursday that residents aged 65+ are eligible to take the vaccine, but supplies are limited. A guy on Twitter said his parents and in-laws, who were 65+ and under 75, booked vaccine appointment on Atrium’s website for late February.

  • New Panthers GM: The Carolina Panthers have hired Seattle Seahawks vice president of football operations Scott Fitterer as the team’s new general manager. He will sign a five-year deal. Former general manager Marty Hurney was fired with two weeks remaining in the season. (Observer)

  • ‘Kiss the ring’ line scrutinized: Health director Gibbie Harris declined to reply to school board member Sean Strain’s assertion Thursday that CMS planned to “kiss the ring” of the health director by following her recommendation to keep classrooms closed. Strain has been a vocal proponent of returning students to schools. At a news conference, in response to a reporter’s question, Harris said: “I’m not exactly sure what that means, so it’s hard to respond to that.” Several CMS board members objected to Strain’s use of the phrase, WFAE reported, including Rhonda Cheek, who said: “To make comments like ‘kiss the ring,’ to me, is infuriating and offensive.”

  • Covid test required for international return trip: American Airlines is waiving the difference in fares for travelers with itineraries through Feb. 9 who want to change their flights because of new international travel rules that require a Covid test before returning to the U.S. (American Airlines)

  • New Wells ‘strategic plan’ coming today: Wells Fargo is in talks to sell its asset-management business, which would be the bank’s “biggest shake-up” since Charles Scharf took over as CEO in 2019, Reuters reported. Wells, which is Charlotte’s second-largest employer, announces earnings today, and Scharf is expected to “unveil a new strategic plan for the bank.” Hmm. Pay attention to this one. (Reuters)

  • Gastonia’s baseball team named for attacking animal: Gastonia’s new minor-league baseball team has chosen its name: The Gastonia Honey Hunters. “The new name and team logo feature the honey badger, described as notorious for its strength, ferocity and toughness and known to savagely and fearlessly attack almost any other species when escape is impossible,” the Gaston Gazette reported. The team’s owner said the name “was chosen to reflect the shared traits between Gastonia and those of the most fearless animal of the world.” (Gaston Gazette)


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Executive editorTony MeciaManaging editorCristina BollingContributing editor: Tim Whitmire, CXN AdvisoryReporting intern: David Griffith

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