Local News

Shifting vaccination guidelines concern Cooper

Posted January 12, 2021 10:11 a.m. EST
Updated January 13, 2021 12:16 a.m. EST

— As counties across North Carolina struggle to vaccinate people 75 or older against coronavirus, federal officials on Tuesday called for opening up vaccinations to people 65 or older.

The shift, which comes weeks after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory group pushed the 75-plus age group up on the list, appeared to irritate Gov. Roy Cooper, whose administration has been criticized for a relatively slow vaccination effort so far.

"One of the continuing problems we've had with the federal government is that they have continued to shift their advice on what the priorities for the vaccine should be," Cooper said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. "We have seen several iterations of their recommendations to the states."

Cooper and other governors talked earlier in the day with Vice President Mike Pence about vaccine distribution, and Pence outlined the new guidance, which Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said they haven't yet seen in detail.

"We all know that there are severely limited amounts of vaccines – manufacturers are making them now – but we've all known from the get-go that we were going to need to prioritize vaccines," Cooper said.

"We will take the new recommendations," Cohen said, "and examine those and see how it fits into the work we're doing."

She said she wanted the state's vaccine advisory committee to weigh in on the proposed changes before making any dramatic shifts in programs going on across the state.

"Getting this kind of advice in the middle of all this is obviously very challenging," she said.

North Carolina has been among the slowest states when it comes to getting shots into people's arms in the first weeks of the nationwide mass vaccination effort. According to CDC data, only six states have slower distribution rates.

State lawmakers grilled Cohen during an oversight meeting Tuesday on the pace of vaccinations and why the effort was left up to counties, some of which haven't been up to the task.

Cohen said the rate is improving and that the state saw a 113 percent increase in vaccines given over the last seven days. Also, 10 mass vaccination clinics will be set up in the next week that will add 45,500 vaccinations a week to the state's totals, she said.

North Carolina had administered 211,610 shots as of Tuesday, according to the CDC. DHHS' own vaccine tracker put the number at 190,195 through Monday night, noting that data reports can lag by up to three days.

North Carolina has tried not to rely exclusively on people's age as a determining factor in vaccination priority, Cohen said during the news conference.

"Age alone doesn't address some of the equity issues," she said. "That is why we also wanted to take into account exposure to this virus, particularly for those who are on the front lines of needing to leave their homes to go to work and even when they do that work can't be socially distant."

Under the state's current priority list, police officers, firefighters, teachers, child care workers, postal workers, supermarket employees and other so-called "essential" workers would be in the group after people 75 or older. People ages 65 to 74 would follow them in Phase 2 of the distribution plan.

"When we were originally approaching this, we were looking at both the risk of death and disease from COVID as well as exposure," Cohen said.

Toward that end, the state is rolling out another public service announcement featuring former state Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham, former Bank of America Chief Executive Hugh McColl and others to encourage people to get vaccinated.

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