Counties in North Carolina’s Border Belt have among the lowest rates in the state for COVID-19 booster shots, which health officials say are crucial in combating the virus.
In Robeson County, 19% of the population has received a vaccine booster or additional shot, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s the second lowest percentage in the state, behind neighboring Hoke County.
Columbus County has a booster rate of 21%; Scotland, 25%; and Bladen, 28%.
COVID-19 cases have been climbing in recent weeks across North Carolina, reaching the highest numbers since February.
The same is also true in Robeson, Scotland, Bladen and Columbus counties in the southeastern corner of the state. Robeson saw 474 COVID cases in the week ending July 16, the most the county recorded since the week ending Feb. 5, DHHS data shows.
Bladen County saw 101 COVID cases the week ending July 16, Columbus saw 100, and Scotland saw 96.
Health officials say the COVID vaccine and additional booster shots are crucial for keeping the virus in check.
“We continue to encourage everyone to get vaccinated and boosted when they are eligible,” Amanda Crabtree, spokesperson for UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton, said in a statement. “As new variants cause more transmission, vaccines and boosters remain the best tools for avoiding serious illness, hospitalization and death from this virus.”
Counties in the region also lag behind in initial vaccinations. In Columbus and Robeson, only 43% of people have received initial vaccine doses, compared to 68% statewide. (The figure is 49% in Scotland and 64% in Bladen.)
Residents of the region, home to some of the poorest counties in North Carolina, have long cited several factors for widespread vaccine skepticism, including a strong Christian faith and a lack of trust in the government.
There are eligibility requirements for booster shots. To receive a first booster, residents must be 5 or older and must have received the second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least five months ago or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago.
To be eligible for a second booster, residents must be 50 or older with an initial booster at least four months ago or 12 or older with a compromised immune system. Those who received two shots of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least four months ago are also eligible.
New COVID booster shots designed to protect against omicron variants of the virus are expected to become available this fall.
In the meantime, some local hospitals say they are seeing an increase of COVID patients, although the numbers are far behind those seen in the first weeks of the year.
Six COVID patients were hospitalized at UNC Health Southeastern as of Tuesday, Crabtree said.
Five were hospitalized at the Columbus Regional Healthcare System in Whiteville, said spokesperson Stephanie Miller.
None of the COVID patients at either hospital were in the intensive care unit.
Columbus Regional expects COVID numbers “to continue to rise and fall,” Miller said. “Thankfully, at this time we are not seeing the severity of illness that we saw with previous waves.”
But, Miller said, vaccinations are crucial. “Getting vaccinated and boosted, including a second booster if you are eligible, is still the most effective tool to reduce the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.”