NC front-line essential workers, adults with high-risk conditions move up COVID vaccine list

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Adam Wagner, Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan
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With the approval of a third COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday that front-line essential workers — a large group that includes grocery store workers, public transit drivers and emergency personnel — will be eligible for their shot a week ahead of schedule.

North Carolina also will begin moving early to Group 4 on March 24, starting with people with high-risk medical conditions and those living in some congregate settings, Cooper said.

“Given the current rate of vaccination and increased supply, many providers say they can move to the next phase of vaccinations,” Cooper said.

Teachers, school support staff and child care providers became eligible for vaccinations across North Carolina on Feb. 24 — the first wave of what’s known as Group 3.

The state said other front-line essential workers like agricultural workers, firefighters and police officers would be eligible on March 10. That date is now March 3.

“The third vaccine and improving vaccine supply will help us get more people vaccinated more quickly,” Cooper said. “But as we’ve said before – we still don’t have enough vaccines. You may have to wait for an appointment even if today’s action means you are eligible to get vaccinated.”

DHHS also updated Group 1 to include those who receive long-term home care. Group 4 will now include people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as people with neurologic conditions like dementia.

Tuesday’s press conference comes exactly a year to the day that North Carolina’s first COVID-19 case was diagnosed with the state announcing it March 3, 2020. The Wake County resident, who never was identified, was exposed to the coronavirus at a long-term care facility in Washington state, The N&O reported. Then, the case was considered an isolated one.

As of Tuesday, North Carolina has reported 863,409 cases with 11,288 residents succumbing to complications from the virus that has taken hold and permanently altered daily living across the globe.

Today, there are two vaccines being administered to thousands of residents every day with the third expected to arrive this week.

Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution

Over the weekend, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization for the vaccine developed by Johnson & Johnson. North Carolina will receive 83,700 doses of the J&J vaccine this week, joining the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines that are already in use.

Providers will be offering the J&J vaccine at 43 events across 33 counties, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said Tuesday. Cohen also said that she plans to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine later this week.

North Carolina will not receive any J&J doses next week, Cohen said. She expects the number of doses of that vaccine to remain low for much of March while the company ramps up production.

“We’ve heard that it is forecasted that by the last week of March, first week of April we should be seeing a pickup in the number of Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and they expect to have even more than 80,000 doses per week after that point,” Cohen said.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has two traits that experts and health officials believe will help increase the pace of the vaccination effort: It only requires one shot, meaning there are no follow-up appointments; and it can be stored in a refrigerator, instead of an ultra-cold freezer.

The decision to move teachers ahead of other front-line workers came during a push by Cooper and legislative Republicans for schools to return to in-person learning as soon as possible, a step 90 of the state’s 115 school districts have taken.

Cooper and Cohen also said they wanted to make sure North Carolina’s vaccination infrastructure would not be overwhelmed by a crush of newly eligible vaccine-seekers. By starting with the state’s 240,000 teachers, they hoped to move gradually into the second part of Group 3.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study published last week found that 49% of people who are 65 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s the highest percentage in the country.