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When can anyone in NC get coronavirus vaccine? State officials say timeline uncertain

Posted December 10, 2020 1:41 p.m. EST
Updated December 11, 2020 12:18 a.m. EST

— North Carolina will receive 85,800 doses of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine once federal regulators grant emergency authorization to distribute it, but after that, it's unclear how the state's mass vaccination plan will unfold, officials said Thursday.

"There's still more pieces of this puzzle that we need to learn about before we turn on this vaccination effort," said Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services. "We are going to learn as we go."

The biggest initial question is how much of the vaccine will be allotted to North Carolina and when, Cohen and Amanda Fuller Moore, the state Division of Public Health pharmacist, said during a Thursday morning news conference.

"We don't even know how much vaccine we're going to be receiving from the federal government in Week 2," Cohen said. "So, it's really hard for us to project out timelines at this point."

North Carolina will likely have more than 400,000 doses by the end of the year, based on its population, but specific numbers aren't yet available, Fuller Moore said.

"We really are waiting on the numbers," she said. "As we have the numbers, that gives us the ability to say how far and how fast are we going to be able to go."

Also, she said, projections could change based on how many people choose to get vaccinated over time. Officials said they plan to start providing weekly updates on Dec. 22 of the numbers of people being vaccinated.

The first shipment will be divided among 53 hospitals across the state. Eleven hospitals that have the necessary ultra-cold freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine will get it first. Cohen said the rest won't be shipped until after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sign off on the vaccine's safety for different groups, which could happen this weekend.

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Source: N.C. Department of Health and Human Services

WakeMed and UNC Rex Hospitals in Raleigh, Duke University Hospital in Durham, UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, Vidant Medical Center in Greenville and Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville will each gets 2,925 doses, which is the most any individual hospital will get initially.

After that, Cohen said, it's unclear how fast the state can expand to the nearly 100 other hospitals in North Carolina.

"Until we get those exact numbers from the federal government in terms of our Week 2 allocation, we are not able to say exactly and precisely which hospitals and when," she said.

"We are making every effort to ensure that every local health department, as well as every hospital who has not received [yet], receives some vaccine in Week 2. It's the amount that really is what we're waiting for," Fuller Moore added.

All of the doses in the first allotment will go toward the first shot of Pfizer's two-shot regimen, and none will be held back to provide the needed second shot, Cohen said. Fuller Moore said federal officials in charge of the nationwide vaccination effort have shipments scheduled to the state that will allow people to receive their second dose on schedule.

Even then, the shipment will cover less than 60 percent of North Carolina's estimated 150,000 health care workers, who are the first priority to be vaccinated.

The federal government has contracted with CVS and Walgreens to vaccinate people in long-term care facilities across the state, another high-priority group because of their risk from the virus. Cohen said that process could start in late December or early January.

In Phase 2, which could start in January, front-line workers at risk of exposure, such as those who work in supermarkets; prison inmates and staff; and adults with at least one chronic health condition, such as diabetes or heart disease, will get vaccinated.

A timeline hasn't been set yet for Phase 3, which prioritizes students, and everyone else becomes eligible under Phase 4.

Nearly 4 million North Carolinians could have to wait several months to get a shot, officials said.

"It is not going to be in the early part of 2021," Cohen said. "I think it's going to be closer to the springtime before vaccine is widely available across our state."

Once vaccines are more available in different settings, Fuller Moore said, tracking who got what shot when will be key to ensure the general population has the necessary immunity.

US vaccine timeline

The United States has secured 100 million doses from Pfizer and 100 million from Modena.

But because each patient needs two doses of the vaccine for it to be effective, the U.S. is only guaranteed enough supply for 100 million for the nearly 330 million who live in the United States.

Myron Cohen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill infectious disease expert, believes the constraint will start to ease up in the Spring of 2021.

“I think first couple of months there will be a clamor and it will be in short supply," he said.

During that timeline he says we could see two or three additional vaccines come to market.

“As these other vaccines come on line and assuming there as good as the other vaccines, then we will have choices and a bigger supply and the companies making the vaccine their supply will increase and increase over time," he said.

Both Pfizer and Moderna, which is seeking approval for a different coronavirus vaccine, have two-shot regimens. Pfizer's vaccine needs a second shot 21 days after the first, while Moderna's needs one 28 days after the first. The vaccines also aren't interchangeable, so people need to make sure their second shot matches the first.

"Part of our communications campaign will focus on reminding people that, once you get your first dose, you still need to get your second dose," Fuller Moore said, noting that state officials are working with health care providers and insurance companies to get reminders out to people. "It is nothing short of a challenge."

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