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By Anne Blythe

People with chronic health conditions such as heart disease, asthma, obesity, diabetes and autoimmune disorders will be eligible on March 17 for COVID-19 vaccines in North Carolina, a week earlier than previously announced.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, announced on Thursday that any adults at high risk for severe illness in Group 4 can join the lines to get an inoculation.

That also includes smokers, current and former, if they’ve smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, in line with guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“What it shows, and the research bears this out, is that even being a smoker for a short period of time in your life can do underlying damage to your lungs,” Cohen said. “This is a disease that can impact inflammation in your lungs, so we have seen worse outcomes for those who are smokers.

“Even if you are not a current smoker, but are a former smoker, that could have had underlying lung damage for you, and again, puts you at increased risk.”

People in North Carolina currently eligible for COVID vaccines include anyone 65 and older, health care workers and frontline essential workers.

Cohen further elaborated on the kinds of workers that includes. They are people who have to be in person to do their work in:

  • Critical manufacturing where products are made for the food supply, medical supplies and equipment and other necessary goods;
  • Education jobs such as child care, K-12 schools, community colleges and other institutions of higher education;
  • Essential services such as groceries and pharmacies;
  • Food and agriculture industry jobs such as meatpacking and processing plants, farming, and restaurants;
  • Government and community service, including clergy, court workers, postal workers and reporters;
  • Health care and public health including social workers;
  • Public safety and the police officers and firefighters that make up the forces; and
  • Transportation such as public transit workers and maintenance and repair technicians.

As Cohen listed the industries and offered a few examples of workers in them, she urged others who wonder whether they’re in the Group 3 frontline essential worker list to contact the DHHS help center at 888-675-4567 or go online at FindMyGroup.

Susan Morehead of Greensboro receives her COVID-19 vaccination from Air Force medical technician Jade Loftus, Wednesday, March 10, 2021, at the FEMA-supported mass vaccination site outside Four Season Town Centre mall. Wednesday was the first full day of vaccinations at the site which includes both indoor and drive-thru vaccinatons. Photo credit: Walt Unks/Winston-Salem Journal, used with permission

Who else becomes eligible?

As of early this week, North Carolina had fully vaccinated more than 1.1 million people, a milestone that’s giving many optimism that the other side of the pandemic is in sight.

With slightly more than 11 percent of the population fully inoculated against COVID-19, Cohen and Cooper announced that homeless people, including those living in shelters, as well as people in jail or prison, will also be eligible for vaccines on March 17.

Some providers in some parts of the state may not be ready to move into Group 4 on March 17, Cooper said, and should continue to prioritize those eligible in the first three groups.

“This move to Group 4 is good news and it’s possible because of the tireless work of our state health officials, vaccine providers, federal partners, our North Carolina National Guard and Emergency Management and so many others,” Cooper said. “I want you to know your work is making all the difference.”

On April 7, North Carolina will open vaccine eligibility to other essential workers not yet vaccinated such as those working in:

  • Chemical fields such as petrochemical plants, pharmaceutical facilities and consumer products;
  • Commercial facilities including retail and hotel workers;
  • Communications and information technology such as dispatchers for service repairs and data center operators;
  • Defense industrial base workers;
  • Energy including electric, petroleum, natural and propane gas workers;
  • Financial services;
  • Hazardous materials such as nuclear facility workers or those managing medical waste;
  • Public works infrastructure such as plumbers, electricians, exterminators and park workers;
  • Housing and real estate; and
  • Wastewater and water treatment plants.

College students living in dormitories and other group settings such as fraternity and sorority houses will be eligible for vaccines after April 7, according to the Group 4 deeper dive information on the DHHS website.

“Group 4 is very large,” Cohen said.

North Carolinians have access to the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“We are very fortunate to now have three tested, safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines that keep people out of the hospital and prevent death from this virus,” Cohen said. “With improving supplies, North Carolina can get more people vaccinated sooner and meet our goals to provide equitable access to vaccines in every community in the state.”

Visiting loved ones in nursing homes

Because more people are getting vaccinated, the federal government recently released new guidance for how long-term care facilities and nursing homes can safely expand visitation options during the pandemic.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the CDC collaborated on the new guidance which calls for allowing indoor visitation at all times and for all residents with some caveats.

They include limiting visitation:

  • For unvaccinated residents if the positivity rate in the county of the facility is greater than 10 percent and fewer than 70 percent of the residents in that facility are fully vaccinated;
  • If the resident has a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 and has not met all the transmission-based precautions; or
  • If a resident is in quarantine.

Earlier this month, Cohen announced that her department was easing visitation restrictions in skilled nursing facilities, adult care homes and other licensed facilities because case rates were down 15-fold.

“Protecting our residents and staff in long-term care has been a top priority in our pandemic response efforts and seeing cases decrease in these settings is heartening,” Cohen said in a statement at the time. “I know it has been a long, difficult year for residents and families, but those measures saved lives and are now allowing us to resume safe, indoor visitation. While we need to continue infection prevention practices, this decrease is also a positive sign of the impact vaccinations have in our communities.”

Democrats, Republicans compromise on schools

On Wednesday, the governor and General Assembly leaders touted a bill approved by lawmakers on Thursday as an example of Republicans and Democrats coming together with a common goal.

They all described their mission as getting North Carolina’s approximately 1.6 million public school children back in classrooms.

Republicans at the head of the General Assembly had one vision in mind that largely cut local school districts out of the decision-making process. Cooper, a Democrat who vetoed the lawmakers initial bill, stood firm against that with the help of his party members in the legislature.

In the new bill, which made it through both chambers in less than 24 hours, Cooper no longer will be able to enact a statewide shutdown of all in-person classes for elementary school children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Local districts will retain the ability to shift to online classes if COVID-19 spread in any one of the 115 school districts brings on teacher and staffing shortages or concerns about public health.

The districts must consult with Cohen and others on the state’s public health team and Cooper could order an individual district to close its doors for in-person instruction.

The districts also have flexibility for what happens in the middle and high schools in their areas.

The boards can decide whether it’s best to provide in-person instruction with minimal distancing in Plan A or using the six-foot social distancing requirement in Plan B.

Districts that decide to go with the Plan A distancing requirements must notify DHHS and partner with the ABC Science Collaborative housed under the Duke University School of Medicine so researchers there can collect data and analyze school safety during the pandemic.

The bill only covers the rest of this year.

Cooper signed Senate Bill 220, or The Reopen Our Schools Act of 2021, late Thursday afternoon.

“Getting students back into the classroom safely is a shared priority, and this agreement will move more students to in-person instruction while retaining the ability to respond to local emergencies,” Cooper said in a statement.

Another bill signed

Cooper also signed a legislative bill on Thursday that authorizes the   allocation of more than $1.7 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds, the third such spending package during the pandemic.

The plan does not include any of the new federal stimulus money approved this week by the U.S. Congress. That has not yet been allocated to the states.

The bill includes some $250 million for higher education relief, more than $100 million for K-12 public school needs, as well as funds for summer learning programs and a study of the effects of the pandemic on K-12 schools.

“While I will ask legislators to revisit some areas of this legislation, including changes necessary to quickly deliver rental assistance, these funds will bring needed relief for people who are struggling, schools and small businesses as we strive to emerge from this pandemic,” Cooper said in a statement issued after the signing.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Tuesday afternoon:

  • 11,622 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 879,825 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,039 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 COVID who continue to feel the effects of the disease beyond the defined “recovery” period.
  • To date, 10,652,888 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.
  • 484 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 287 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of March 10, 3,070,733 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.

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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.