CEO of big N.C. physician group blasts vaccine distribution process

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Dale Owen, a cardiologist and CEO of North Carolina’s biggest independent physician practice, says COVID-19 vaccination efforts in the state and nation remain far less effective than necessary.

Tryon Medical Partners serves 155,000 people, or nearly 20% of the adult population of Mecklenburg County at eight offices. Its nearly 90 doctors spun out of Atrium Health a couple years ago, citing their desire to operate independently of the giant Charlotte-based health care system.

The business has had a minus-90 degree freezer capable of holding 250,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine since Dec. 1. It received its first dose of 200 vaccines this week, which Owen said was a redistribution from the Mecklenburg County Health Department. Tryon Medical is now promised about 200 more doses over the next week.

“We need to deploying the whole medical community rather than one or two entities,” Owen says. “This is a wartime like we’ve never seen before and we aren’t treating this as wartime. The entire medical community needs to be out distributing vaccines.”

The physicians’ key complaint is that federal and state officials are funneling vaccines through hospitals and health departments instead of physician offices and pharmacies, which have traditionally been the key distributors.

“When you have 100,000 doses coming into the county, there ought to be enough distribution capability to get that in people’s arms in one day, not five or seven days as we are seeing right now,” Owen says. “This is an all-hands-on-deck situation and all independent physician groups, hospital groups, pharmacies and yes the National Guard will be needed. There is no way that we can handle the volume that will soon come to the market in the next 45 days as [drug companies] provide more vaccines.”

Owen praises existing efforts to distribute vaccines including the mass events sponsored by Atrium and Novant at local venues. But he notes “there needs to be 10 times as much effort underway.” Those special clinics aren’t operating 24-7 as he believes should be occurring.

A partnership between Honeywell, Atrium Health, Tepper Sports & Entertainment and Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted mass vaccinations at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bank of America Stadium. More than 36,000 vaccinations were administered over five days with a goal of reaching 1 million vaccines by July 1, officials say. Those partners are touting the program as a national model, but Owen says it isn’t as effective or safe for patients as the traditional approach of relying on local physicians and pharmacists.

“We can’t settle for `It’s the best we can do.’ The entire medical community needs to have their arms locked together with the pharmacies and we need to be working at maximum efficiency. I applaud what is happening, but it’s not even close to what is needed.”

The physician adds that it’s not a financial issue for Tryon Medical, which won’t cover its costs because the federal reimbursement for the vaccine is nominal. “This isn’t about advertising, market share, price wars or transparency. This is about the health of the dadgum nation. All those petty things need to be put aside.”

Concern that many people won’t take the vaccine also can be alleviated if physicians were more involved because  they engender more trust than hospitals and the government, Owen says.

The N.C. Medical Society, which represents physicians who work for both hospitals and in independent practices, hasn’t commented on the state’s rollout strategy.

 

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