By Anne Blythe

As the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine begins to arrive in North Carolina this week, boosting battle supplies for a state a year into its fight against the coronavirus, Gov. Roy Cooper offered good news Tuesday for all those who work on the front lines in jobs they cannot do from home.

As of Wednesday, those essential frontline workers will be eligible for vaccines. Those workers in Group 3 include firefighters, police officers, grocery store workers, people working in manufacturing, food and agriculture workers, servers in restaurants, bars, taverns, wineries, government workers, clergy and more.

“Our essential frontline workers have remained on the job throughout this pandemic and I’m grateful for their work,” Cooper said.

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Additionally, Cooper said, the state plans to open vaccine eligibility on March 24 to people with medical conditions that put them at risk for severe illness, as well as to college students living in dormitories or other group settings such as fraternity and sorority houses.

More people with intellectual and developmental disabilities will be eligible for vaccines on Wednesday.

The state expanded the definition of long-term care to include anyone who receives services through Medicaid Home and Community Based Services waivers for 30 days or more, making them immediately eligible for vaccines.

More options with Johnson & Johnson vaccine

As of 11:59 p.m. Monday, North Carolina had administered 2.526 million doses of vaccine, with more than 855,600 second doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna two-shot vaccines.

This week, North Carolina expects to get 80,000 doses of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration authorized the one-shot vaccine for emergency use on Friday. On Sunday, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, signed a CDC advisory committee’s recommendation endorsing the vaccine as safe and effective for people 18 and older.

“I know that many Americans look forward to rolling up their sleeves with confidence as soon as a COVID-19 vaccine is available to them,” Walensky said in a statement. “Having different types of vaccines available for use, especially ones with different dosing recommendations and storage and handling requirements, can offer more options and flexibility for the public, jurisdictions and vaccine providers.

“Getting vaccinated with the first vaccine available to you will help protect all of us from COVID-19.”

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, who will become eligible for the vaccine on Wednesday as a government worker, said Tuesday during a briefing with reporters that she planned to get a Johnson & Johnson jab later this week.

“I’m glad to be a frontline essential worker and have access to these vaccines,” Cohen said. “I encourage everyone to, when it is their spot in line, to get their shot.”

As the Johnson & Johnson vaccine moved through the Phase 3 trial and efficacy and safety data were revealed, public health advocates have highlighted some of the advantages of the new shot.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is only one dose, whereas the Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines currently being administered require two shots several weeks apart. The Pfizer vaccine requires super-cold storage facilities, and the Moderna also must be kept frozen while shipped to states and countries. The J&J vaccine does not have to be frozen, which will make it easier to deliver to people who may be homebound or to far-flung counties with fewer resources.

Still, health care workers find some people focusing on the different efficacy rates between the two-dose and one-dose vaccines.

Cooper’s office announced late Tuesday that the governor, 63, would get a vaccine on Wednesday without offering when, where or which one would be administered.

The J&J vaccine, which was tested in the United States, South Africa and Brazil, where more contagious variants of coronavirus have been reported, proved to be 85 percent effective at preventing severe illness in all three countries, and 66 percent effective overall at preventing both severe and moderate cases.

“We have three vaccines that are safe and effective, and we want folks to get vaccinated as soon as possible,” Cohen said.

Cohen stressed the importance of people getting vaccinated knowing which shot was being administered so they know if and when they need to return for a second dose.

“When folks are signing up for the vaccine, we’re working with our vaccine providers to make sure they are being very clear whether this is a one-dose vaccine clinic or a two-dose vaccine clinic,” Cohen said.

Cooper’s office announced late Tuesday that the governor, 63, would get a vaccine on Wednesday without offering when, where or which one would be administered.

This week, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be sent to 33 counties for some 44 clinics, Cohen said.

Greg Adams, the owner of the Piggly Wiggly in Sanford and his produce manager Billy Selig both appeared in a new public service announcement to encourage essential workers taking a COVID vaccine, now that they’re eligible. “We want to make sure people can get their food, get their medicine, diapers, milk, all the thing that they have to have,” he said.
Screenshot courtesy: NC DHHS

Then over the next several weeks, the state expects a brief lull in delivery of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines before a pickup again toward the end of March or early April.

“This is a really exciting moment,” Cohen said. “We now have three tested, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines that are keeping people out of the hospital, keeping them from dying from this virus.”

Cohen and Cooper said that the state will receive nearly 215,000 of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. With the J&J delivery, this coming week’s allocation comes close to 300,000 doses for the state.

Next week, North Carolina will get even more help vaccinating people when the Federal Emergency Management Agency opens a vaccination center in Greensboro.

The federal agency will open a clinic at the Four Seasons Town Centre on March 10 and stay open for eight weeks, according to a news release issued by the governor’s staff.

Appointments will be required.

Vaccines will be available at the Greensboro center seven days a week with an expectation that up to 3,000 coronavirus vaccine doses can be administered each day. The clinic was set up to provide access to communities that often are underserved, the governor said.

Not only will people be able to access the vaccine in drive-thru lanes, people without transportation will have walk-in access at the space once occupied by Dillard’s department store. Federal personnel, mostly from the Department of Defense, will staff the site.

Ramping up production

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced that pharmaceutical giant Merck will team up with Johnson & Johnson to get even more vaccines manufactured and out to the public in coming months.

Biden said his administration had helped foster a relationship between the two companies to increase production.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services will collaborate with Merck to repurpose some of the company’s facilities for the large-scale, rapid manufacturing of vaccines and other therapeutics to be used in the pandemic and other public health emergencies.

According to a release from HHS, the partnership could speed up the production of vaccine doses to bring an additional 100 million doses into play by the end of May, instead of June as initially planned.

Biden, who has been advocating for getting children back to school during the pandemic, also announced that the federal government would do what it could to force states to prioritize the vaccination of teachers to get schools opened quickly and safely.

North Carolina teachers have been eligible for vaccines since Feb. 24. Some counties have set up clinics for teachers and others plan to do so in the coming weeks.

New priority for people with disabilities

Since vaccinations started, people with disabilities in North Carolina and their advocates have been frustrated that they have not been put at higher priority.

That changed Tuesday afternoon, when Cohen said that so-called Group 1 vaccine recipients will be expanded to include those who have been receiving home and community-based services.

“The definition of long term care has been updated to include people receiving long term home care for more than 30 days,” Cohen said. “This includes home and community based services for persons with intellectual and developmental disability, private duty nursing, personal care services, home health and hospice.”

Additionally, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, dementia and other neurological conditions will now be part of Group 4, according to Cohen.

“[People with intellectual and developmental disabilities] are more at risk, because they have underlying physical and genetic conditions, some of which we don’t even know about,” said Jennifer Mahan, director of policy for the Autism Society of North Carolina.

Such a population, she explains, is often exposed to multiple people, who are caregivers, family members, health care providers and others.

“They are simply exposed to more people,” she said. “We’re incredibly grateful, because that’s what we were asking for was for people who had greater sort of exposure and greater risk to be prioritized.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 11,288 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 863,409 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,353 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.
  • 819,839 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, 10,311,881 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.
  • 595 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 334 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of March 2, 2,526,442 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine.
Shows a man wearing a red apron over his uniform and a facemask to prevent COVID arranging vegetables on refrigerated produce shelves.
Billy Selig, the produce manager from the Piggly Wiggly in Sanford arranges vegetables in the produce section. He and his boss, owner Greg Adams, appeared in a new public service announcement to promote essential workers taking a COVID vaccine, now that they’re eligible. Screenshot courtesy: NC DHHS

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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.