WRAL Investigates

Counties juggle priorities as school staff, those over 65 vie for limited COVID-19 vaccine supply

Posted February 15, 2021 5:46 p.m. EST
Updated February 15, 2021 6:29 p.m. EST

Gov. Roy Cooper's declaration that school employees can be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines beginning Feb. 24 is a relief to some but a concern to many, including the tens of thousands of people 65 and up still waiting for their shots.

The pool of those who work in schools – not just teachers, but bus drivers, custodial staff, food service workers and child care providers – numbers more than 200,000 statewide.

With the supply of shots still well below demand, people in both groups could be in for a wait of weeks.

Michelle Johnson, of Apex, says her parents, who are in their late 70s, have already waited more than a month.

“I just worry about all the people who are in a position where they should be getting it but they haven’t been able to get it yet," she said.

Dr. Betsey Tilson, North Carolina state health director, said counties are being told to prioritize the backlog of vaccine demand before delivering shots to school workers.

"We have told our counties, if you still have a large demand of people who are 65 and up, you can keep working through that list and get to our frontline, essential workers after," she said.

Each county will handle that balance differently, based on population, demand and community spread.

“All of the state won’t be able to move together on this,” Tilson said.

For example, Chatham County has about 2,000 school staff while Wake County has about 50,000. Orange County leaders told WRAL News that they plan to fully vaccinate those 65 and older before moving into school staff.

In Wake County, some doses will be immediately set aside for schools, starting with those in COVID-19 hotspots.

Ryan Jury, mass vaccine branch director for Wake County, understands the frustration.

"I’m not sure at any point in time anyone will feel any of this is fair, but we know who they are. We have not forgotten them, and they are still a priority,” he said of those already on the county vaccine waiting list.

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