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Cooper mobilizes National Guard to boost vaccine rollout

Posted January 5, 2021 12:29 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2021 7:05 p.m. EST

— Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday mobilized the North Carolina National Guard to speed up the state's vaccine rollout.

"Ensuring COVID-19 vaccines are administered quickly is our top priority right now," Cooper tweeted. "We will use all resources and personnel needed. I've mobilized the NC National Guard to provide support to local health providers as we continue to increase the pace of vaccinations."

About 50 Guard members will be operational in the coming days, officials said. Some will handle logistics planning or command and control center support, while others will be on vaccination teams available to support state efforts.

The logistics and command and control personnel will be assigned to work with the state Division of Emergency Management’s Regional Coordination Centers in Kinston, Butner and Concord, officials said. The vaccination teams will be mobile, with time and locations to be determined.

North Carolina has one of the lower rates of vaccine administration in the country, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures.

The slow vaccine rollout is not simply a North Carolina phenomenon, and a number of health experts have criticized the vaccine operation nationwide.

"US has really botched the vaccine rollout," Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist who recently left Harvard University for the Federation of American Scientists, said Monday on Twitter. "Only 4 million shots administered over a month, despite promise of 20 million by end of 2020. US needs to give 7-10 million vaccines a week."

But the process has been particularly slow in North Carolina, based on data released by the CDC. As of Tuesday, the CDC said North Carolina had 498,450 doses delivered and had administered 121,881. The state's vaccination rate per 100,000 people made North Carolina the 12th-slowest state in the country.

"Though a vaccine was created sooner than expected, the state had months to prepare a distribution plan. It’s inexcusable for vaccines to sit on the shelf for as long as they have," Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said. "It’s good that the governor realizes that and plans to mobilize the National Guard. We are waiting to see if there is a plan behind that announcement."

Cooper's move comes two days after state Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, asked Cooper to enlist the National Guard's assistance.

"The numbers of North Carolinians contracting Covid daily is staggering, and the slow distribution of the vaccines is disturbing," Richardson wrote in his letter. "Now is the time to act promptly and with a renewed commitment to bipartisan results."

The letter states that 26 states planned to mobilize their Guard units to aid in vaccine distribution, a figure reported by the Department of Defense National Guard Bureau in mid-December.

The figure may be lower now. A bureau spokeswoman told WRAL News on Tuesday that seven states are using National Guard units providing some kind of support, but added that may not be a complete count.

Richardson said it's "not wise" to have hospitals and other health care providers already struggling with the surge in coronavirus patients to also handle vaccination logistics.

"What we should do is use the various resources of the state and the nation to help the health care system do what they do best," he said.

"There are some who can actually help give vaccinations; some will help with logistics and other things," Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said about National Guard assistance.

Richardson also called on General Assembly leaders to come back into session on vaccine issues, or at least be ready for action on day one of a legislative session already scheduled to start next week.

Just what legislation might be needed wasn't spelled out, but Richardson said the state should "empower and fund our National Guard to overcome the roadblocks currently impeding the efficient and rapid delivery of vaccines to our citizens."

"The day we get sworn in, put us to work," Richardson told WRAL News. "When we focus on a specific problem, magic happens."

The legislature should focus on solutions instead of rollout problems, he said. But a legislative oversight committee already plans to delve into the vaccine distribution effort during a meeting next week.

"This is unprecedented, and we're going to make mistakes," Richardson said.

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