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By Anne Blythe and Rose Hoban

Teachers, child care workers and others who work in North Carolina’s elementary, middle and high schools can mark Feb. 24 on their calendars as the day they are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in this state.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, announced the timeline on Wednesday to give vaccine providers time to figure out how they plan to add nearly 240,000 school and child care workers into the mix of people eligible for vaccines.

People 65 and older and health care workers continue to remain eligible for the vaccine. Cooper said earlier this week that he and his public health team were developing a plan for how they would open up vaccine eligibility to essential workers, such as teachers, police, firefighters, food workers and others.

Essential workers beyond educators will get access to the vaccine March 10, Cooper said, without elaborating on who would be included in that wave.

“Starting with a smaller number of Group 3 frontline essential workers helps providers streamline vaccine distribution effectively and efficiently,” Cooper said during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, explaining why teachers would be the first essential workers in line.

The announcement comes a week after Cooper and state education leaders urged all school districts to open their classrooms for in-person instruction, citing several studies that concluded that schools could be open as COVID-19 continues to pose a menace if proper safety protocols and mitigation measures are followed.

Educators pushed back, arguing that until they could get COVID-19 vaccines, the risk of getting infected with the virus outweighed the benefits of offering in-person instruction.

Cooper, who has been an advocate for public schools and teachers through his first term as governor, heard their call.

Educators praised the new timeline.

 

“North Carolina public school educators are eager to get back into their classrooms as soon as it is safe to do so, and today’s announcement from Governor Cooper is an important step forward in making that a possibility,” Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said in a statement issued on Wednesday. “By giving all educators, including bus drivers, maintenance workers, nutrition workers, and those who work directly in the classroom vaccination priority, we will be able to resume in-person instruction more quickly and safely. We thank Governor Cooper for listening to the overwhelming message from educators, parents, and the community that educators require vaccination priority.”

Cooper’s timeline was presented as a bill introduced in the state Senate last week that’s moving swiftly through committees in the state House of Representatives could jeopardize a major feature of his reopening plan. The governor has left ultimate decisions on how and when to reopen to local school boards that have a better idea of the staffing and space availability in each of the state’s 115 school districts.

But Senate Bill 37, which passed in the Senate on Tuesday with two Democrats siding with Republicans, would take that power to decide away from the local boards and require all districts to provide in-person classes. Districts would also have an option for daily classes in person for special needs students.

“For months we’ve heard from families and students who are clamoring to return to in-person learning. The science and data show that we can reopen schools safely,” Deanna Ballard, a senate Republican from Watauga County, and Michael Lee, a senate Republican from New Hanover County, wrote in a joint statement posted to Senator Berger Press Shop. “The Governor’s empty rhetoric about the importance of in-person instruction does nothing to help kids. The General Assembly is taking decisive action to actually get students back to school.”

Mitigation strategies important

Though the Republican leadership in the state Senate and House chambers often take different political stances, they all have been united in citing a study done by the ABC Science Collaborative to bolster their contention that it is safe to have school children in the classrooms.

Researchers from the collaborative pored over data collected over nine weeks in the fall from 11 North Carolina school districts that offered at least some in-person instructions. They concluded that it was safe to bring teachers and students together in classrooms, as long as masks were worn and other mitigation efforts were followed.

Two authors of that study, Kanecia Obie Zimmerman, an associate professor of pediatrics at Duke University, Ibukun Christine Akinboyo, a Duke assistant professor of pediatrics, spoke about some of their research during a webinar Wednesday morning about reopening schools.

Some educators and teacher advocates have questioned whether the study was skewed because there was a lower instance of community spread in some communities when the data were collected.

“We had communities that had low case counts, we had communities that had high case counts,” said Akinboyo. “They all reported fairly similar data sets. The overall number of cases in the community would mean that the school district is dealing with more community cases that potentially could come into school. But with mitigation practices — and that’s really the take-home here. With appropriate mitigation practices, even in settings that had high community rates, we are still seeing low spread within the school setting.”

The schools that opened required masking, spacing desks and students out to comply with social distancing protocols and cleaning.

“We know the mitigation strategies work,” Zimmerman said. “They work outside of school buildings. …There is no fundamental reason to believe that wouldn’t work inside a school building as well.”

While students were given credit for mask-wearing and following the rules, adults in some districts were responsible for clusters in some of the schools.

Cooper had not made his announcement on giving teachers access to vaccines when Akinboyo, Zimmerman and Kristen Stephens, an associate professor of the practice of education at Duke, responded to questions during the hour-long webinar.

Stephens was asked if teachers should be vaccinated before returning to in-person teaching.

“I think teachers would like the added protection of being vaccinated,” Stephens said. “I think we’d all like that. But I don’t think the majority of them are saying, ‘I’m not going to return to the classroom until I’m vaccinated.’ They’re in teaching not for the pay, but because they’re really devoted to their students. They really want to be with their students in the classroom and want what’s best for their students. They’re always looking through that lens.”

Won’t be all at once

Just because Cooper has given a firm timeline for when teachers will be eligible for vaccines does not mean everyone will have access on Feb. 24.

The supply of vaccines sent to the state from the federal government continues to be much lower than the demand. Many providers have developed waiting lists for residents 65 and older, as well as health care workers.

Currently, the state gets about 150,000 first doses of vaccine per week. The Biden administration has been slightly increasing that number in recent weeks, up from a low of only 120,000 doses in January.

Cooper and Cohen said they expect 155,000 first doses next week.

After a bumpy start to vaccine distribution, the state has recently figured out that providers have shown that if more doses were available, they could administer some 320,000 shots per week.

“Vaccine supply limitations continue to impact how fast we can get all North Carolinians vaccinated,” Cohen stressed. 

Federal funds on the way

Schools will get additional funds to help them prepare for more students after Cooper signed into law the COVID-19 relief bill that legislators sent to his desk last week.

The package allocates nearly $2.244 billion in federal funds that Congress allocated to the state in late 2020. Nearly $1.6 billion will go to schools to help with COVID-19 mitigation and prevention plans.

“This pandemic continues to strain communities across our state, and this investment of federal funds in critical areas will help us defeat COVID-19 and build back a stronger and more resilient North Carolina,” Cooper said in a prepared statement.

Cooper has recommended a COVID-19 relief package that calls for spending $4.765 billion, some of which would come from the state’s rainy day savings fund.

Signing the lawmakers’ plan, though, does not preclude negotiations for additional bills to address concerns not covered in the $2.24 billion package he signed on Wednesday.

Cooper and lawmakers have tried to persuade the public that there is a new spirit of working together after an election that returned a Democrat to the governor’s office and Republicans to a majority of the General Assembly seats.

Lawmakers push for shift in rollout

There was a show of support from both parties for Cooper’s public health team on Tuesday, when members of the House Health committee heard from providers from around the state on Tuesday to track how COVID vaccine rollout is progressing.

“We are excited that older adults are prioritized in this rollout,” said Lisa Reigel from the North Carolina chapter of AARP in a presentation to the committee. “People 65 and over account for only 15 percent of COVID cases, yet, fatalities, it’s 83 percent. So you can see they’re the most impacted.

“We want all North Carolinians to get the vaccine. We know that production and distribution are the barriers. And we’re happy that everybody’s working on those two issues.”

Lawmakers expressed some satisfaction that the rollout has sped up and that people are gaining access to vaccines at a quicker pace than they were in January. But they also wanted to see more diversification of locations where people could receive vaccines, in particular, from pharmacies.

“Pharmacists can play an important role in doing this. About 95 percent of Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy,” said Andy Ellen, head of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association. “A lot of North Carolinians visit the pharmacy every single month to get their prescription drugs.”

He said that all of the states around North Carolina have been using pharmacies to distribute vaccines.

“Beginning this week, there’ll be a million doses of vaccine being distributed to pharmacies in each state and Walgreens was selected to be North Carolina’s initial partner,” he said. “They’re going to receive 31,000 doses this week, from the federal government, from the Federal allotment, and will begin administering this on February the 12th, which is Friday.”

He noted that more than half of those locations will be focused on serving underserved areas.

Some of the House members worried that in the press for speedier vaccination, some elements of equity are being lost.

Nash County Democratic Rep. James Gailliard asked about equity in getting rural people of color both first and second doses.

Philip Brown, the Chief Physician Executive of New Hanover Regional Health, was presenting to the committee in his role as president of the North Carolina Medical Society. He told Gailliard that more effort recently has gone towards reaching Black communities in eastern North Carolina, for instance, in vaccination clinics at Black churches.

“Our community coordinators are reaching out to those patients, will help ensure that they make it,” he said. He also said that people receive a second vaccine appointment when they get their first shot.

“We’ll have to keep a very close eye on how well those appointments are kept,” Brown said. “Folks have been very eager to be vaccinated, and so it’s been excellent, excellent second dose turnout in all populations.”

Rep. Bobby Hanig, a Currituck County Republican, expressed his frustration that some rural counties had their allotments pulled in recent weeks to supply large urban mass vaccination centers.

“Currituck and Dare County, for instance, were doing 1,000 vaccinations a day and in order to do that they were pulling their fire, their EMS, their law enforcement,” he said. “Their vaccinations have been cut in half or more, it’s almost like they’re being penalized for being so efficient.”

In an emotional close to the meeting, Rep. Michael Wray (D-Gaston) talked about how his father’s youngest sister was in the COVID unit at Vidant Halifax and he worried that she was the last of that generation.

“It’s pretty emotional for a lot of people,” he said. “You got people that say it’s a fluke… but it’s a reality our people in a war zone. But you know, our health care workers are going in, and day in and day out, and it’s just like nobody needs them, but when they need them, they’re there.”

He also praised the response from DHHS leadership.

“Mandy Cohen, I mean, she’s not perfect, I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect. But I’ve seen her in these committee meetings be on the front line and take every question with honor and integrity.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 10,181 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 805,898 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 2,291 are in the hospital. The hospitalization figure is a snapshot of people hospitalized with COVID-19 infections on a given day and does not represent all of the North Carolinians who may have been in the hospital throughout the course of the epidemic.
  • 730,454 people who had COVID-19 are presumed to have recovered. This weekly estimate does not denote how many of the diagnosed cases in the state are still infectious. Nor does it reflect the number of so-called “long-haul” survivors of COVID who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 9,379,095 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, all labs in the state are required to report both their positive and negative test results to the lab, so that figure includes all of the COVID-19 tests performed in the state.
  • People ages 25-49 make up the largest group of cases (39 percent). While 15 percent of the positive diagnoses were in people ages 65 and older, seniors make up 83 percent of coronavirus deaths in the state.
  • 791 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 775 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of Feb. 10, 1,486,544 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

Anne Blythe

Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.