By Anne Blythe 

The severe weather that has left record snowfalls across the country and iced-up roads in North Carolina dumped yet another challenge on states weary from battling COVID-19 for nearly a year.

Poor road conditions have led to delays in the vaccine shipments that have offered glimmers of hope for North Carolinians 65 and older, as well as health care workers eligible for a shot in the arm and a boost in spirit during this grueling and isolating time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention delivered the unwelcome news to states this week, and North Carolina was on the receiving end.

“This news is frustrating to all of us,” Gov. Roy Cooper told reporters during a briefing on Thursday. “But providers are working to get appointments scheduled and we’re pushing to get more vaccine to our state.”

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As of 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, North Carolina had administered 1.882 million doses of vaccines, according to the state vaccination dashboard. More than 584,000 people have received both first and second doses of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, and about 12 percent of North Carolinians have received at least one shot.

Although the weather delay could mean some appointments for second doses will be postponed this week and possibly next, there were some supplies already in the state, according to Kody Kinsley, deputy secretary for behavioral health and intellectual disabilities at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Those doses will be allocated to some sites so some people might not have to reschedule their appointments for second doses, Kinsley said.

Some large vaccine events scheduled for Thursday were canceled because of the weather and concerns about people driving on icy or flooded roads.

Teachers, school staff and child care providers will be eligible for the vaccine on Feb. 24. It’s unclear whether the adverse weather will have an impact on that.

Who has the say on reopening, closing classrooms?

As the state nears the anniversary of the first lab-confirmed case reported on March 3, 2020, some of the state’s 115 school districts have not opened their classroom doors to students for nearly a year.

On Feb. 2, Cooper, the state school superintendent and state school board chairman announced that they were strongly urging all 115 school districts to bring students back into the classrooms while following social distancing guidelines.

As he has throughout the year, the governor left the ultimate decision-making to local school boards across the state. In explaining why he did not issue a mandate, Cooper said the local elected bodies had a better handle on how much staffing would be available as well as how much space each school building had to keep students, teachers and other staff safe.

A legislative bill sent to Cooper’s desk on Wednesday would take the power of decision-making away from the local school boards and instead mandate by law that all school districts offer in-person classes for students in kindergarten through high school with minimal or moderate social distancing requirements.

Eight Democrats in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate voted with their Republican colleagues to pass the bill, margins that would not assure that a veto from Cooper would be sustained by his party.

Cooper has stressed that he supports getting children back inside schools as long as safety guidelines put forward in the StrongSchoolsNC Public Health Toolkit are adhered to.

“We know that in-person learning can be held safely with proper health measures in place, and I’m joining education leaders to encourage school districts to take this step,” Cooper said. “However it is critical that parents and teachers have confidence that their health and safety remain a priority.”

Teachers have pushed back against a return to classrooms without having access to vaccines. That will change on Feb. 24 when school employees will be at the head of the line as essential workers eligible for the limited supply of vaccines coming to North Carolina.

It’s unclear whether the adverse weather will delay the distribution rollout for educators next week.

The legislative bill requires local school boards to create a process through which teachers and staff can come forward as employees at high risk to suffer severe illness from COVID-19 and be considered for assignments that take them out of that pathway for danger. That might mean remote instruction assignments or additional on-site protections.

As of Thursday, Cooper said, 91 school districts have started offering some in-person instruction. By mid-March, Cooper added, 95 percent of the state’s school districts plan to provide in-person instruction, serving 96 percent of the state’s public school students.

Cooper has issues with the bill that lawmakers sent to him this week.

“I’ve communicated to legislative leaders that I can sign legislation requiring all school districts to return to the classroom if it requires compliance with the Department of Health and Human Services safety guidelines for schools and protects the ability of state and local leaders to respond to emergencies,” Cooper said Thursday. “The bill they just passed fails on both of these fronts.”

Before deciding whether to veto the bill or letting it become law without his signature, Cooper plans to have more discussions with legislators.

“It is critical for our teachers and students that we get this right,” Cooper said.

Shows an older man instructing a group of young people with cameras. They're all wearing masks to prevent the transmission of COVID.
Photo credit: Jorge Franganillo/ Flickr Creative Commons

Larger crowds at sporting events?

On Thursday, lawmakers added another school-related issue to the mix they want Cooper to consider.

Three Republican senators introduced Senate Bill 116, an attempt to increase the size of the crowd allowed at outdoor high school sporting events.

Sen. Todd Johnson, a Union County Republican, Sen. Vickie Sawyer, an Iredell County Republican, and Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, propose changing the 100-person cap at outdoor facilities to 40 percent of a stadium’s capacity.

Under the current limit outlined in an executive order set to expire on Feb. 28, many high school athletes are playing in games in which close family are unable to watch.

“Many parents have reached out to my office with the legitimate complaint that they can’t watch their children compete in outdoor sports even though many facilities can hold much more than 100 people and still abide by social distancing guidelines,” Johnson said in a statement included in a news release announcing the proposed bill. “The current 100-person limit is unreasonable and ignores the reality that many outdoor high school sports facilities are very large and can accommodate many more socially distanced fans.”

Legislators also sent Gov. Cooper a letter on Thursday asking him to amend his executive order to tie the crowd size to stadium capacity instead of forcing all to cap the attendance at a specific number.

“First, I understand parents wanting to come and see their students at ballgames,” Cooper said. “I remember playing high school basketball and football and seeing my parents up there every time along with my grandparents.”

North Carolina’s COVID-19 trends and metrics have improved in recent weeks after troubling surges related to the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

As of Thursday, there have been 833,423 lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 10,766 deaths. There were 3,916 new cases reported on Thursday, significantly down from the alarming 11,000 new cases reported one day in early January.

The number of people hospitalized with severe illness related to COVID-19 was 1,892 on Thursday, a significant drop from January when it was common to have more than 3,000 people in hospital beds.

“Our numbers are improving, which is good,” Cooper said. “We are a long way from being out of the woods here. We need people to continue to wear masks and social distance and get their vaccines as soon as they can, and as soon as their turn comes up.”

As health officials develop recommendations for how to change the executive order that expires on Feb. 28, one of the issues they are considering is whether to change capacity limits at outdoor venues.

“We’ve got to keep the health and safety of North Carolinians as the number one priority,” Cooper said. “But we do understand people wanting to be a part of these events, and so that’s something that health experts are working on. They’re looking at the data, they’re talking to people in other states, they’re talking to the CDC. Hopefully, we will see some changes in that area when we make the announcement on the new executive order.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:

  • 10,766 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 833,423 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,892 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.
  • 765,456  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.
  • 754 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 436 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of Feb. 18, 1,185,865 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

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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.