Image shows young people with glasses of wine and sparklers smiling and celebrating. the text reads: Bring summer back to North Carolina, Get a safe, effective and free COVID-10 vaccine and help others do the same.
An image from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services newest vaccination campaign.

By Anne Blythe

As the demand for COVID-19 vaccines slows in many counties, Gov. Roy Cooper and his public health team have offered an inducement for the unvaccinated and all who have friends and family who haven’t gotten a shot yet.

When the state gets two-thirds of the adult population vaccinated, he said, many of the restrictions that have altered life for more than a year could become relics of the past.

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During a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, Cooper suggested that day could come as soon as June 1, while stressing that masks will still be necessary for some activities into the summer.

“With at least two-thirds of adults vaccinated, our public health officials believe we’ll have enough protection to begin to put the pandemic behind us,” Cooper said. “We now have an adequate supply of vaccines, so we need everybody to step up.”

Nearly 36 percent of the North Carolina population 18 and older has been fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services vaccine dashboard. Nearly 77 percent of the population that is 65 and older has had at least one vaccine dose and 71 percent are fully vaccinated.

“That’s great news,” Cooper said. “But we must keep going strong.”

North Carolina has seen a slight uptick over the past week in the number of people hospitalized with disease related to COVID-19. That number had dropped below 1,000 in late March and early April. On Tuesday, there were 1,168 people hospitalized and 285 were in ICU beds.

The positivity rate of COVID-19 tests also has inched up to nearly 6 percent, higher than the 5-percent benchmark that public health officials set as the goal.

“As we work on vaccinations, we need to keep our COVID trends, such as cases and hospitalizations stable,” Cooper said. “We need to keep being careful and responsible to keep those trends down and save lives. I believe we can.”

Children younger than 16 are not eligible for any of the vaccines approved for emergency use. At summer camps, schools and other activities, masks and other safety measures will be incorporated into programs.

Masks and other safety recommendations also are likely to be required past June at large indoor gatherings for adults, too.

“Although we’re making progress we haven’t beaten COVID-19 yet and the virus will still be with us even after June the first,” Cooper said. “Vaccines are the key to us moving forward.”

Bring back summer

That’s why state Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen announced a new “Bringing Summer Back” get out the vaccine campaign.

During two weeks in May and two weeks in June, organizations will rally together across the state to promote vaccination.

“If we can get at least two-thirds of all adults vaccinated, we can get back to the summer activities we all love, like backyard gatherings with family and friends, public fireworks, outdoor festivals or parades, all without wearing masks outside,” Cohen said. “I know my daughters want summer back and so do I.”

Until then, Cohen urged people to continue wearing face masks in public and getting tested for COVID-19. Even people who have been vaccinated and have coronavirus symptoms later should get tested, Cohen added.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that a small number of people who have received vaccines have nonetheless had “breakthrough cases” of COVID at a rate of about 8 cases per 100,000 vaccinated people.

“We are at an exciting moment,” Cohen said. “We now have enough vaccine for everyone. Supply is strong and stable. It’s widely available and in most places, you don’t have to wait or need an appointment.”

Tough row to hoe

Getting to that two-thirds goal by June 1 might not be an easy task.

In North Carolina, according to an April 19 report posted on Carolina Demography’s website, 29 percent of adult North Carolinians who responded to a U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey from March 17 to March 29 were hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Thirty-six percent of North Carolinians ages 25 to 39 were vaccine hesitant, according to the survey. Thirty-five percent of those surveyed ages 40 to 54 were vaccine hesitant and 29 percent of those ages 55 to 64 expressed hesitancy.

Men were more likely than women, 32 percent to 27 percent, to be vaccine hesitant. Thirty-nine percent of the Black respondents were hesitant to get a vaccine, as were 33 percent of the Hispanic respondents compared to only 26 percent of the white respondents.

Nearly half of the respondents who expressed hesitancy said they were concerned about possible side effects. Forty percent said they planned to wait and see if the vaccines were safe.

Taking vaccines to the people

During a Zoom call on Wednesday with a Partnership for a Healthy Durham, a coalition of community members and local organizations, Rod Jenkins, director of the Durham County public health department, discussed some of the tactical shifts his department has been making to combat hesitancy.

Only weeks ago, it was difficult to get a spot for a shot in Durham County and elsewhere. Now vaccine event organizers are having difficulty staging medium to large clinics because of lack of demand. 

“My counterparts in other counties, be it Forsyth, Guilford, Wake County, they’re now beginning to explore the idea of demobilizing their mass sites, because of the fact that scheduling for vaccinations have become a tad bit soft,” Jenkins said. “Really to stand up that kind of apparatus is very labor- and staff-intensive.”

The strategy now is moving toward going out into the community, taking vaccines to the pockets of people who are either hesitant or face barriers to getting to more traveled sites.

Mobile vaccine clinics that have been out and about in Durham in recent days have met hesitancy, too, especially since the pause on administering the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that vaccine administrators stop using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until advisory boards could review six cases of rare blood clots in women.

There has yet to be a recommendation to resume use of the vaccine. That move could come soon with possible warning labels or restrictions on who should receive the vaccine, public health officials have said.

Nonetheless, public health advocates continue to push vaccines as the tool that can put the pandemic in the rearview mirror.

“We are really employing a strategy of really going to where the need is as opposed to having just a different stand-up clinic,” Jenkins said.

Coronavirus by the numbers

According to NCDHHS data, as of Wednesday afternoon:

  • 12,480 people total in North Carolina have died of coronavirus.
  • 952,529 have been diagnosed with the disease. Of those, 1,168 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.
  • 911,719 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, 12,021,825 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. 
  • 254 outbreaks are ongoing in group facilities across the state, including nursing homes and correctional and residential care facilities.
  • As of Tuesday, 285 coronavirus patients were in intensive care units across the state.
  • As of April 21, 6,594,886 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.