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By Anne Blythe

Anybody in North Carolina who’s at least 16 years old will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine by April 7.

Gov. Roy Cooper shared the news with reporters on Thursday, saying the state could accelerate access because of an expected increase in vaccine supplies in the coming weeks.

Additionally, providers in some counties such as Craven, Cumberland, Greene and Rockingham were having difficulty filling vaccine appointments for their allotments and already have opened eligibility to anybody 16 and older.

The reasons for the difficulty filling appointments are unclear. For example, Cumberland County is home to Fort Bragg and the military has been providing vaccine clinics on site with allotments from the federal government, and perhaps creating less need for state allotments.

Federal officials allotted North Carolina 168,400 Pfizer/BioNTech first doses, 99,500 first doses of Moderna and 58,800 doses of the one-and-done Johnson & Johnson vaccines for the coming week.

Although the demand for vaccines still outpaces the supply in most of the state, Cooper and Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, say that when supply is greater than the demand, people can more easily book appointments for a shot.

“We certainly want to get to that point, but we want it to be a time when more people are vaccinated,” Cooper said, adding that was a reason for opening eligibility to all sooner than anticipated. “We are hearing from some providers that they can use more people coming in for appointments.

“I think it’s really important, though, that we have to continue to work hard to get out into communities, convincing people who are hesitant, trying to help people who are homebound, people who may not have access to the internet or may not think that this is so important,” Cooper added.

Essential workers move up

In addition to opening up vaccine eligibility to all on April 7, Cooper also moved up the eligibility date for essential workers in Group 4. They now are eligible to book appointments beginning March 31.

People in that category include workers 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.

That also means that college students living in dormitories, fraternity, sorority houses and other group settings are eligible for a shot on March 31.

Many high school students will be able to sign up for vaccines a week later, but at this time the Pfizer vaccine is the only one available to 16- and 17-year olds. The Pfizer trials included people who were 16 and older while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson trials initially included people 18 and older.

By April 7, when 16- and 17-year-olds are eligible for vaccines, the state plans to add a feature to its “Find your spot to take your shot” portal that shows which spots are offering the Pfizer vaccine.

‘This is the time’

To ensure that vaccine administration is done equitably without leaving behind historically marginalized populations, the state has partnered with the NC Counts Coalition, a non-profit that recently was deeply involved in making sure the 2020 Census included “hard-to-count communities” such as children not yet in school, the Hispanic and Latino communities, indigenous populations, Black residents and migrant workers and their families.

Those are communities that Stacey Carless, executive director of NC Counts Coalition, plans to focus on as vaccine distribution continues through the Healthier Together public-private partnership program just launched.

“For the past year, COVID-19 has exposed and exasperated racial and ethnic health disparities stemming from a history of exploitation, disinvestment, disenfranchisement and marginalization,” Carless said. “We cannot afford to wait another minute to address these inequities as precious lives remain on the line. This is it. This is the time.”

North Carolina has been working at closing the equity gap, particularly during the past two weeks with the federally sponsored mass vaccine clinic at Four Seasons Town Centre in Greensboro.

The state’s population is 23.1 percent Black and during the past two weeks, 18.7 percent of the people vaccinated were Black, according to a DHHS report.

People who identify as Hispanic or Latino, 9.8 percent of the North Carolina population, received 9.2 percent of the vaccines administered during the past two weeks.

Biden sets new vaccine goal

President Joe Biden announced on Thursday during his first White House press conference that he’d set a new goal for his first 100 days in office: To get 200 million COVID-19 vaccines administered.

“I know it’s ambitious,” Biden told reporters. “I believe we can do it.”

When Biden set his initial goal in early December to get 100 million shots into arms in his first 100 days in office, many questioned whether that could be easily accomplished. Since then, his administration has ramped up production of the vaccines developed through the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed.

The 100 million shots were administered by the 59th day of the Biden presidency.

Biden has said he hoped vaccine administration would continue at a pace in which people will be able to celebrate the Fourth of July with backyard barbecues and other events.

“We’re not there yet, but in the next couple of months, we’ll have enough supply for everyone who wants a vaccine to get one,” Cooper said. “When that happens each of us is going to have to talk with our friends and family who are hesitating about getting vaccinated and convince them to do it because the vaccine is our path to recovery. It is the road to normalcy.”

Neither Cooper nor Cohen would commit on Thursday to providing a hard and fast number for the percentage of the population that needed to be vaccinated to return to a time when COVID-19 restrictions would be a thing of the past.

Even though daily rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths have dropped dramatically since January peaks, in recent days, case numbers and hospitalizations have plateaued or even ticked slightly upwards. The number of deaths hit a 10-day high on March 24, with 40 reported deaths.

“We’re looking forward to the summertime when we have a much larger percentage of the people vaccinated and we can have significantly fewer restrictions and return to normalcy,” Cooper said. “But what’s going to be required is that as many people as possible getting the vaccine.

“There is some concern that we might have a large percentage of the population that is hesitant about it and may refuse,” Cooper added. “We’re going to depend on doctors and ministers and family members and friends to push and cajole those who may be hesitant about getting the vaccine.”

As of Thursday, 31.7 percent of North Carolinians 18 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the DHHS dashboard. Nearly 15 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

“We’re really going to have to keep working hard through this entire process to make sure people are being vaccinated, and particularly when we do reach that point when supply exceeds demand,” Cooper said. “This opening up of the process more will help us with that.”

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Thursday afternoon:

  • 11,757 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 889,310 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,002 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.
  • 864,755 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, 10,851,648 tests have been completed in North Carolina. As of July 7, 2020, 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.
  • 223 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Thursday, 245 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of March 17, 3,455,805 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.