Are you a health care worker? We’d love to hear from you. Email editor at northcarolinahealthnews.org

By Anne Blythe

“Fast and fair.”

That’s how Gov. Roy Cooper describes the state’s mission to get coronavirus vaccines into as many arms across the state as possible.

In a state with more than 10.5 million people, nearly 1.1 million of them have been fully inoculated against the now not-so-novel coronavirus that upended so much of 2020 and continues to pose challenges and risks in 2021.

“This is a huge milestone,” Cooper told reporters at a briefing Tuesday afternoon. “This puts us even closer to a time when we can hug our loved ones and gather without fear of severe illness.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance this week for vaccinated people, giving a go-ahead for the fully vaccinated to visit others who also are fully vaccinated without masking or distancing themselves as they have had to do for nearly a year.

The CDC even opened the door for fully vaccinated people to visit indoors with children, grandchildren and others in a different household if those still not inoculated are at low risk for serious illness from the virus. The agency still discourages any gatherings larger than those small one- and two- household events.

Since the arrival of vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson over the past three months, many in North Carolina are beginning to think about times ahead when children will be in school five days a week, families can gather for holidays, and some of the more valued aspects of pre-pandemic life return.

Many school districts have brought students back for in-person instruction, a measure that Cooper, state lawmakers and education leaders have pushed for nearly a month.

“With children back in school and vaccine distribution well on the way, there are more signs of hope that we are making progress toward putting this pandemic behind us,” Cooper said.

Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen received her COVID-19 vaccine at the Wake County Health Dept’s vaccination clinic last week at PNC Arena. Rev. William Barber also received a vaccine that day during a widely publicized event. Photo courtesy: NC DHHS

North Carolina, with a total 875,905 lab-confirmed cases, reported only 997 new cases on Tuesday, a large drop from the highs shortly after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays when nearly 11,000 new cases were reported in a day.

The percentage of tests coming back positive hovers at the 5 percent rate now, a level that public health officials say they can accept. The number of people hospitalized on Wednesday was 1,147, nearly a third of the cases of severe illness that filled hospital beds in January and parts of February, and about the same as the number in the hospital in October.

Cooper, who has taken a more cautious approach than many southern governors steering the state through the pandemic, counseled North Carolinians to stay the course, using masks where needed, keeping gatherings small and following the social distancing measures touted by public health officials.

A sports fan and former high school athlete, he used a football analogy to remind North Carolinians that while the other side of the pandemic might seem close, that milestone hasn’t been reached yet.

“You know there are times in football when the runner nears the goal line and begins celebrating too early and is stripped of the football,” Cooper said. “Let’s not get caught celebrating too early.”

Praise for vaccine data collection

Cooper has celebrated the national attention that North Carolina has received recently for providing racial and ethnic data for nearly 100 percent of the people vaccinated for the coronavirus.

Bloomberg News has pointed that accomplishment out in its nationwide vaccine tracker. The kudos come after state lawmakers, mostly Republicans, criticized Cohen and Cooper in early January for a slow vaccine rollout as county health departments and other providers complained about how cumbersome it was to enter information into the state database created to track the vaccine distribution.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Human Services announced that its vaccine data dashboard would be expanded to include even more data with week-by-week county-level data on the race, ethnicity, gender and age of those vaccinated.

The dashboard also will break down the information so users can see the percent of the population fully vaccinated or partially vaccinated.

There are some limitations. The data by demographics does not include information on doses administered through federal programs.

Hugs ahead

Cooper and Mandy Cohen, DHHS secretary, received vaccines last week.

Cooper received a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at WakeMed and Cohen received a Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine at the Wake County health department’s vaccination clinic at PNC Arena.

“My arm was sore and I did feel a little achy that evening,” Cohen said. “But the reaction was mild and it didn’t last long.”

Cohen will be fully protected from COVID-19 after two full weeks, she said.

“It’s a great feeling of relief,” Cohen added. “One and done.”

Cohen, who has spoken about having to miss Thanksgiving and other annual events with her family, said she looks forward to embracing her loved ones again.

“I’m looking forward to hugging my parents for the first time in more than a year,” Cohen said. “They are now fully vaccinated and will be visiting at the end of the month.”

Nonetheless, vaccinated people should still wear masks in grocery stores and around others not yet vaccinated, Cohen said.

More work needed to vaccinate Hispanic North Carolinians

Although North Carolina has received accolades for its collection of demographics on vaccine administration, both Cooper and Cohen acknowledged that works need to be done for more equitable distribution.

Black North Carolinians make up 23 percent of the population but represent only 16.2 percent of the people vaccinated, the DHHS dashboard shows.

Though Hispanic people make up nearly 10 percent of the population, only 3 percent have been vaccinated, according to the DHHS dashboard.

“It’s important to point out that you can’t know about a problem until you can see it,” Cooper said, crediting DHHS and Cohen’s team for building a vaccine database that collects race, ethnicity and more for each shot administered.

The state has been working with churches, community leaders and the federal government to set up vaccine clinics, including a Federal Emergency Management Agency clinic that opens in Greensboro on Wednesday and will get a visit from the governor.

“There has been strong, intentional effort,” Cooper said. “That number needs to get better.”

Who will decide about schools?

Before Cooper’s briefing with reporters, Sen. Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican and president pro tempore of the state senate, and Sen. Deena Ballard, a Watauga County Republican, held a briefing with reporters to give an update on negotiations over Senate Bill 37.

The bill is an attempt by mostly Republican lawmakers to force school districts across the state to open their doors for in-person instruction as long as there are online options for at-risk students.

Cooper vetoed the bill on Feb. 26, issuing the following statement: “Students learn best in the classroom and I have strongly urged all schools to open safely to in-person instruction and the vast majority of local school systems have done just that.

“However, Senate Bill 37 falls short in two critical areas. First, it allows students in middle and high school to go back into the classroom in violation of NC Department of Health and Human Services and CDC health guidelines. Second, it hinders local and state officials from protecting students and teachers during an emergency. As I have informed the Legislature, I would sign the bill if these two problems are fixed.”

Three days later, the state Senate failed to get the supermajority necessary to override Cooper’s veto. Democrat Ben Clark, a state senator representing Hoke and Cumberland counties, had been a sponsor of the bill but was absent for the override vote, leaving 29 votes supporting override with 20 against.

After the failed override, Cooper issued another statement.

“The question on SB 37 that I vetoed is not whether our children should be in the classroom in person,” Cooper said. “They absolutely should. The question is whether we do it safely.

“The bill allows middle and high school students to be in school without following NCDHHS and CDC guidelines on social distancing. SB 37 also removes authority from state and local officials to put students in remote learning in an emergency like a new COVID variant hitting our schools. I have asked legislative leaders to compromise with me on these two issues but so far they have not. I will continue talking with legislators and I will work diligently with the State Board of Education and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to make sure all of our children and educators are in the classroom, in person and safe.”

Berger said Tuesday he thought a compromise could be close, but neither Ballard nor Cooper offered details about where there was common ground and what issues had yet to be resolved.

Cooper told reporters later that afternoon that he had not seen legislation that would envelop a compromise, but he acknowledged that he had been negotiating with Berger and others.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 11,552 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 875,903 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,147 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.
  • 837,824 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 coronavirus who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 10,581,557 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 coronavirus 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.
  • 485 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 300 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of March 8, 2,938,543 North Carolinians have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. At this point, 17.4 percent of North Carolinians have had at least one shot, and 10.6 percent of adults in the state have received both vaccinations.

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.