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Health Team

NC plans free, phased rollout of COVID vaccines

Posted December 1, 2020 9:24 a.m. EST
Updated December 2, 2020 8:33 a.m. EST

— A COVID-19 vaccine will be free to anyone in North Carolina who wants it, Gov. Roy Cooper said.

He and Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, detailed the distribution plan during a media briefing on Tuesday.

State health officials will review data and research on any vaccine before beginning to make it available to the public, Cooper said.

The state wants everyone to get the vaccine, but when it becomes available to various populations will depend on factors including job and current health status.

As soon as the FDA grants approval for the use of any vaccine, the state is expecting to receive about 85,000 doses.

It will first be given to health care workers in hospitals and long-term care facilities who treat or work with COVID patients and those who clean areas where COVID patients are present. The state estimates that some of those 161,000 people statewide will begin to get their shots by the end of December.

That group is more narrow than the Phase 1 recipients recommended by a panel of independent advisers to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a 13-1 vote, the doctors of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices advised that all health care personnel and all residents of long-term care facilities be included in the first group.

As additional vaccines are approved, the state will get additional allocations and will expand distribution to others. By January, the vaccine will make its way to other high-risk adults.

The second group targeted by the state will be residents of long-term care, people over the age of 65 who live in crowded situations such as jails and homeless shelters, and other adults who have two or more chronic conditions that put them at greater risk for a severe case of the coronavirus. That group is estimated to number up to 951,000.

Vaccinating the rest of those at high risk for exposure to COVID-19 will encompass another 1 to 1.5 million people – everyone over 65, those under 65 in crowded situations or who work in frontline jobs and don't have two or more chronic conditions.

The third phase makes vaccine available to anyone in an essential position, according to the state "workers in industries critical to societal functioning," and students in K-12 schools and colleges and universities.

The final phase would include the remainder of the North Carolina population.

Much of the work will be done at the county level. Wake County Pharmacy Director Jason Wittes says, "We’re just really waiting on the allocation to be sent to us, drop shipped, so we can hit the ground rolling. We’ve been working for the past two months approximately, putting pen to paper as a small core team focusing on the rollout of our vaccine."

Wittes says those who got flu shots from the county this fall helped identify logistical issues around refrigeration and mass distribution.

"We’ve done a lot of our practice through our drive-through flu clinics and flu clinics at the Sunnybrook location," he said. "We’ve already given it a run-through if you will."

On Tuesday, COVID-19 hospitalizations in North Carolina surpassed 2,000 for the first time. More than 2,030 people are in the hospital fighting coronavirus, and nearly a quarter of those are in intensive care units. Statewide, hospital beds are 74% full and intensive care units are 79% full.

Reported COVID-19 hospitalizations in NC

The count of patients currently hospitalized is reported daily by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and reflects of a daily survey of hospitals. Because the response rate of that survey varies day to day, we're showing a rolling 7-day average of hospitalizations calculated since the state began reporting numbers consistently on March 24.

Source: N.C. DHHS
Graphic: Tyler Dukes, WRAL

As has been the case, the majority of these hospitalizations are happening in the Triad and Charlotte areas.

  • The Capital Region, which includes Wake, Franklin, Johnston, Harnett and Lee counties, has 133 total people in the hospital, with 37 of them being in ICU.
  • The Duke Healthcare region, which includes Durham, Granville, Vance, Warren, Person and Caswell counties, has 148 total people in the hospital, with 36 of them being in ICU.
  • The Mid-Carolina Region, which includes Alamance, Orange, Chatham, Moore, Montgomery, Richmond, Hoke, Cumberland and Sampson Counties has 232 total people in the hospital, with 62 of them being in ICU.

Daily new cases in North Carolina are averaging 3,617, and more than 10% of coronavirus tests come back positive. A total of 5,284 people in the state have died.

In a morning meeting with his Council of State, Cooper warned, "We do have a tough couple of months ahead of us," again reminding them of the need for leaders to set an example in terms of mask wearing and social distance.

The council, Cooper said, will continue to meet remotely “until we can get on the other side of this pandemic.”​

Even with promising news from several vaccine manufacturers, multiple health experts have said a COVID-19 vaccine won't be widely available until at least spring.

Cohen said that while a select few may begin to get the vaccine before the new year, it will be especially important for people to social distance and follow mask orders throughout the holiday season.

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